The Illusion of Omnicompetence: Smart and Competent Are Domain Specific Adjectives

The illusion of omnicompetence is the failure to recognize limits. Smart and competent are not a generic quality: they’re incredibly domain-specific.

The Illusion of Omnicompetence

“Smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific.”
Megan McArdle in “Obamacare is no Starship Enterprise

One of the secrets to building a successful technology startup is to attract talented people to your mission who share your values but bring diverse skills and perspectives. Innovation is very hard and successful sustainable innovation is a rare outcome. There is a tendency for the “suits” to look down on the “propeller-heads” and the “pony tails” who of course reciprocate this lack of respect. The green eye shades and the grey hairs view the rain makers with some suspicion, who in turn mentally assign them and others to the “committee to stop sales.” No one cares much for the shysters until the fine print sprouts teeth.

Your Team Needs Your a Requisite Variety of Skills

  • You need people who enjoy sweating the details and others who don’t lose sight of the big picture.
  • You cannot talk your way out of an engineering problem, but if you take the time to listen to prospects you may find a way to reframe the problem to one you can solve.
  • Computing systems tend to be rigid and unforgiving, rewarding those who understand the need for an exacting specificity. People are much more complex and ambiguous and resist debugging.
  • You need people on the team who can plan the work and work the plan, and at least one or can push the reset button at the right time for the right reasons before things go too badly off track when the map does not match the territory.

I don’t have any magic formula for how to identify–much less attract and retain–the right set of talent for your team. But I do know it’s important to recognize that you need folks who have deep domain experience and at least a few who are good at spanning domains. Recognizing that you need a requisite variety of skills is a good start, and being cautious –difficult for some entrepreneurs–in areas you are unfamiliar with is another good practice.

Call it “the illusion of omnicompetence.” When you know a lot about one thing, you spend a lot of time watching the less knowledgeable make elementary errors. You can easily infer from this that you are very smart, and they are very stupid. […]

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress.

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

We like to think that being “smart and competent” makes you less likely to make mistakes. But when you’re out of your element, it may merely enable you to make more — and larger — mistakes.

Megan McArdle in “Obamacare is no Starship Enterprise

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2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Omnicompetence: Smart and Competent Are Domain Specific Adjectives”

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