Was the Prince of Lost Dreams my Johari Window?

the prince of lost dreams andaz hotel amsterdam © ian beckett

A few years ago I was in the Hyatt Andaz hotel in Amsterdam which is themed by designer Marcel Wanders on the prince who gave his name to the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), which is also remembered as the ‘Prince of Lost Dreams’.

This prince was known to answer questions of people in such a way that they were able to vividly remember their inner strengths and most exciting dreams. The Andaz Prince’s statues are throughout the hotel and if you stand with your head between the hands of the stature you will recall your “lost dreams”.

I don’t know if this happened to me but what I do know is that a management error I have been guilty of for many years became clear and actionable.

In managing teams and clients over the years I always believed that missing skills could be developed using the theory of the “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill”, which was developed at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. It has since been frequently attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.

The “Four Stages of Learning” provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

Several elements, including helping someone ‘know what they don’t know’ or recognize a blind spot, can be compared to some elements of a Johari window, although Johari deals with self-awareness, while the four stages of competence deals with learning stages.

What frustrated me is that the process simply does not work in many instances. Sometimes people cannot be motivated to change. Even if they comply because they have to, due to management direction — they do not internalize the learning and revert to undesired behaviours when the next stressful situation arises.

The moment of clarity in my “lost dreams” of my problems deploying change can be explained by the Dunning–Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias, wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority when they mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

As described by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” Hence, the corollary to the Dunning–Kruger effect indicates that persons of high-ability tend to underestimate their relative competence, and erroneously presume that tasks that are easy for them to perform also are easy for other people to perform.

Put simply my subjects simply did not know what they did not know. Hence in my enthusiasm to deploy a new learning using the aforementioned “Four Stages of Learning”, I was doomed to fail, because, what was simple for me, was impossibly difficult for them. My frustration with this reinforced the undesired old behaviors.

I am guilty of this in the simple task of running a business — I apply Dickensian principles of Micawber to create metrics to ensure that revenue exceeds expense — simple but not for a specialist engineer who gets bogged down in technical details rather than the priority that revenue should exceed costs.

Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was formulated in 1999, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority has been known throughout history and identified by intellectuals, such as the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), who said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”; by the playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), who said, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It, V. i.); by the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”; and by the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), who said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

This problem of incompetence as detailed by the Dunning–Kruger effect is completely different from stupidity. But the required actions are similar in that the people rather than the process must be changed.

Elon Musk did this when he fired 7 key managers in the Space X team in 2019 because the pace of progress was too slow.

I have an ability to visualise a complete and optimal workflow in a business almost instantly. Impatience will not enable others to see this — especially if they are customers and not team members. My solution was training and development.

Could my “lost dreams” have been a failure to realise that staff replacement, rather than training and development was required?

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Ian Beckett MSc

Ian Beckett MSc

Ian is a digital transformation expert who has saved companies over $200m by integrating technologies and diverse global teams effectively— he is a CEO and poet