21st Century competence — what’s the other 80%?

I have two jobs at the moment. I lead two teams, one focused on research and the other specialising in information architecture — job one. Job two is finding good people to join these teams. It’s a challenge. I spend a lot of time advertising roles, reviewing CVs and meeting people.

There are clear processes we use when we assess a candidate for a role. But I’ve been giving extra thought to the characteristics I value and think are important when I’m trying to assess competence. Luckily, these things also help me to support people to grow and develop. So I’ve found this thinking to be valuable for recruitment and for leadership. I hope others might find it useful too.

The other 80%

I’ve been known to claim:

Our team of IAs are bright and brilliant people. The BBC is big and complex but we reliably and regularly arrive at options that increase the efficiency, resilience, coherence or connectedness within the systems we work with. We ace at the hard skills of IA. But as with any other type of system design, the real challenge comes with connecting the “IA thinking” to the other disciplines we need to work with.

That “connecting the thinking” involves what some people might call soft skills. But “soft skills” often make up the majority of professional practice. Communication, trust building, resilience, persistence are all key attributes. Having strategies to ensure your work, effort and insight make a difference to a design is what I look for and admire in the people I work with.

Sometimes recruitment processes and personal development can feel like they were designed for a different time or a different type of work. The reductive codification of ‘skills’ and competence into lists of narrow categories might feel like they describe the building blocks of a professional practice for some. But there’s a persistent danger that they encourage a box ticking mentality. It can lead some to narrow their focus rather than consider how a ‘competency’ might be a starting point from which to diverge and build your own way of practicing it.

The big long lists that I see in some job descriptions and development plans do not inspire me or feel very useful. But not all lists are bad. So I’ve been thinking about the characteristics which might underpin that other 80%. I have a list of three.

Integrity — the ability to “be” and be with others

Integrity is different but related to what some people might call maturity. It’s the sense of knowing who you are and being able to remain yourself as you integrate with others. You can exercise influence without overcoming others. There’s an element of humility which enables you to embrace uncertainty. You share questions with others as a way towards mututal learning — rather than using ‘answers’ as an invitation to praise. You’re as good at listening as you are at talking. You don’t think of competence as a performance, but as a practice. So you’re not trying to protect your ego as you ‘perform’. Each opportunity or challenge is a chance to learn and grow, to merge what you are with what opportunities might enable you to become.

Integrity enables practitioners to achieve balance. You have faith in the future. The future is open and shaped by those who can be present in it to carve it and render their intent. You have confidence and stability which provides a foundation for patience and resilience.

You’re not weighed down with anxiety about achieving some long term vision. You connect your vision to the current moment. Because you have faith in the future you embody your aspiration. You’re less fearful of disruption, discontinuity or even collapse — you accept that sometimes these are inevitable elements of transformation.

Thing fall apart when the centre cannot hold… you can provide a new, catalytic centre when things fall apart.”

Your quality of integrity provides a gravity which holds you together in times of pressure. It imbues the groups of which you’re a part with a forward-moving momentum to aid collaboration and co-operation. And when leading, you have the confidence to make small acts of creative transgression. Large acts are the equivalent of revolution and are likely to be met with resistance. Smaller acts are cheaper, have more chance of success and enable you to transform things.

Wisdom — the combination of knowing and feeling

You don’t need a beard, a staff or the ability to rotate your head 360 degrees to be wise. Wisdom is the combination of intellectual and emotional intelligence. It’s the combination of knowing and feeling.

The qualities of integrity and wisdom mean that you can use both your intellect and emotion to make decisions and shape your actions. You show ‘knowledge in motion’ as you are comfortable in and understand moments.

You might assess your competence in this area through your relationship to time.

Chronos

Maybe you love timetables, schedules and plans — the measurement of time. This gives you the feeling of being organised and in control. Your control over your diary gives you control over your performance and life — you can plan, set a deadline and travel through time to deliver against a linear plan.

Kairos

You can think on your feet, in the moment. You’re not reliant on preparation but can become integrated into the moment, losing self-consciousness to meet the present challenge. You read situations and spot opportunities.

ASIDE: To quickly jump back to where I started this post, talking about interviews. Sometimes people with a mastery over ‘clock time’ thinking (chronos) don’t do themselves justice in an interview. Either the unnaturalness of the setting or their level of competence compromises their ability to be present in the moment. These people appear reliant on prepared answers and miss the chance to truly answer the question and respond in the moment.

Wisdom requires a balance between knowing and feeling, preparing and responding. In ‘Dancing at the Edge’ O’Hare and Leicester talk about ‘connoisseurship’ — “judgement, taste and subtle appreciation”.

Wisdom enables a type of ‘situational connoisseurship’ which lets you judge the room and apply strategies to succeed. It enables you to be present, but utilise prepared strategies for navigating difficulties or points of conflict.

To be present doesn’t mean you haven’t prepared. But like a jazz musician you have the wisdom to adapt. This means you can manage any automatic responses — like the amygdala hijack which might overcome the less wise. You remain effective in a wider variety of situations. You can look at your emotions, not just through them. This gives you the ability to reflect and achieve a more reliable level of objectivity.

Mastery

You’re really good at your chosen job. You’re flexible and adaptable. But there’s a solid core to your practice which you and others are aware of as your strength. This is the 20%, built on top of the foundation of integrity and wisdom.

Even though you are highly skilled you combine this with patience and curiosity. You don’t jump to conclusions, even though you often feel you know the right answer before others. And when you don’t immediately know the answer you have the combination of process skills and patience to find it.

Just another list?

This might be just another list of competencies — but at least it’s short. And I hope it’s a useful simple frame for others to consider.

A reductive view of competence is the chief limiting factor in effective practice and development. The key to effectiveness is being able to respond to the demands of each new situation.

Understanding how to remain true to yourself but integrate effectively with the surrounding contexts will make you happier and more productive. Combining thoughts and feelings to be effective in every moment will help you learn and grow as well as achieve your objectives. And commiting yourself to mastery over the things you know you do well will make you trusted and valued.

I’m not sure you can shortcut the path to integrity, wisdom and mastery. But if they are the things you consciously value then you increase the chance of developing them in yourself and the people you work with.

I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)