The Competence Continuum

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I honestly love the work that we get to do. I feel honored to help people through training and coaching and really believe that I get as much out of it as our clients do. But if I ever needed a major career change, I would seriously consider becoming a chef. I find great joy in most anything having to do with food. Learning about unfamiliar ingredients and techniques, discovering the nuances of various cuisines, I am here for it all. I cook most days and if I do say so myself, I am pretty good at it (we’re all friends here, so no false modesty needed). The ability to know which ingredients to put together? Check. Something goes sideways and needs to be rescued? I can handle it. Assessing how something turned out and what could make it even better for the future? It’s how I naturally think. 

But while I feel competent when it comes to cooking, baking is a whole other story. You see, precision baking doesn’t play to my strengths. To be a good baker, you need to basically approach the kitchen the exact opposite way I currently do. No excessive riffing, no “let’s just see how this comes together” and absolutely no “measuring (ingredients) with your heart.” Successful bakers have excellent focus, follow directions well and for goodness sakes, they make sure they have all the ingredients before starting their project. 

However, I love (love, love) baked goods. Brownies, muffins, PIE CRUST in any form? Count me in for all of them. So, I keep trying. 

Emboldened by a recent success with a fancied-up box cake and a surplus of Thanksgiving ham, I decided to make ham and cheese scones. Now while I am limited in my experience as a home baker, I have done extensive taste testing at bakeries across the nation. That has led me to believe that the scone is the white whale of baking. Basically, it’s a triangled shaped biscuit and like Moby Dick, it seems like it’s too big (easy/obvious) to miss (or in this case, mess up). A good scone is heavenly. But the margins with scones are so wide that I always get a backup pastry, as experience has taught me to expect them not to be good. They are almost always too hard, too “bready” with none of the other promised flavors, or worst of all, too dry. 

In retrospect, going after the white whale with limited skill was probably overly ambitious, but here we are in the story, so let’s crack on. 

So, I found a recipe and began to assemble my ingredients (because that’s what bakers do). I realized the recipe called for sugar. IN A SAVORY SCONE? Why?!?!? Immediately, Chef Jill (not Aspiring Pastry Chef Jill) decided to slide into the driver’s seat and offered, “Nope, we don’t need that, we can leave it out and it will be fiiiiine.” Aspiring Pastry Chef Jill decided to find another recipe to compare ingredient lists and instructions. The highest rated result was by a very well-known baker, so I printed it out and read it through (another thing you are highly encouraged to do when baking). Her recipe listed the ingredients and discussed why each of them were in the recipe. (Brilliant and the basis for a whole different blog topic about explaining why you do what you do, but I digress). She explained the sugar gave the recipe a lift and the result would taste a bit flat without it. Okay, I decided that made sense, so I continued with her recipe. 

Did I mention there are a lot of steps in baking? SO. MANY. I was supposed to combine the dry ingredients, then GRATE THE FROZEN BUTTER into them. Ugh, now I must stop everything and freeze the butter. About 30 minutes later, I am back on track (seriously wondering why I just didn’t freeze that ham and make soup at a later date, because that I could handle). Arms and shoulders hurting (because I am grating FROZEN butter) Chef Jill shows back up to question the amount of butter. Aspiring Pastry Chef Jill realizes it’s a finite task and we are almost done, so hang on! Then we must grate the cheese. Note to self: Can probably skip today’s arm workout because we are grating so much stuff…. 

Finally, (FINALLY!!!) it’s time to combine the wet ingredients (because apparently you can’t do that in the same bowl with the dry ingredients) chill the mixture (sure, sure) and then turn it out on the counter to make scone shapes. At this point, I am thinking that the mixture is a bit wet, but hey, what do I know? So, I turn it out of the bowl and it all sticks to the counter. Huh. Okay, back into the bowl, add a bit more flour and… yep, still too sticky. 

Aspiring Pastry Chef Jill is equal parts annoyed and bemused. Annoyed because she just wanted some hot chocolate and a scone for our 4pm client appointment and bemused because this feels a bit like a comedy of errors. Chef Jill shows back up and remembers, hey, scones are basically just triangle shaped biscuits, so how about taking what we have and making the equivalent of drop biscuits (dough that is literally dropped on the pan, kind of freeform and craggy, like the biscuits at Red Lobster) and we can process improve this for next time.  

Both the Jills decide this is what we will do, so, into the oven they go.

About this point, I get to thinking about something we train managers on: The Competence Continuum. Basically, the idea is that competence is a journey, and we start out not only incompetent, but unaware of how deep that incompetence even is. From there, time and experience allow us to move toward competence, but it’s oftentimes a painfully slow progression. 

Currently in my skills as a baker, I have entered the consciously competent stage (which doesn’t actually feel accurate to me). But says “In this stage the learner knows how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought and hard work.” This means that although I have some basic command of the process, it’s not anything I can do without it being mental labor. 

So, how can we apply The Competence Continuum to the workplace and other aspects of life?

  1. Realize that competence is something that comes slowly and none of us start anything as “Unconsciously Competent” (this is when someone has such command of a skill, they can do it automatically and unconsciously, like brushing one’s teeth or driving a car). We must be patient when someone takes on something new and realize there will likely be a drop in speed and quality when they begin. 
  2. Recognize that people need extra support when they are learning new skills. Therefore, it’s imperative for people to receive ongoing training and coaching, then have plenty of opportunities for practice.
  3. Remember that intelligence doesn’t equal competence. We tend to think when someone is smart, they can be great at anything they set their mind to. It’s true people can increase competence at something, but will that equal greatness? Definitely not.  

My scones baked for just about the length of time it took me to clean everything up. When they emerged from the oven, I could barely wait to do a little QA/QC on them. With hopes high, I bit into one of them and the result was… fine. Not bad, just not as good as all the hard work I had put into them. So, I will continue to work on baking competence with some fancied-up box cakes, then maybe some brownies and a muffin or two. And when I can competently steer the ship? Then I will consider pursuing my white whale.