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The Peak of Mount Stupid

This is a blog about coaching; specifically, lean and agile coaching, though it applies to leadership or enterprise coaching just as much. I am part of a new coaching service aimed at increasing the maturity of the agile delivery capability in a UK Government department. We are doing this by training cohorts of staff to become Certified Team Coaches and building an internal coaching service.

The thing about coaching (especially within UK Government) is that it is something that can benefit pretty much everybody in any leadership role. When people get good coaching, they almost always find that it helps. Yet, surprisingly few people seem to want to have a coach. Within Agile teams, coaching is implicit in much of the literature, but it is often neglected.

Coaching applies at all levels of an organisation: I am a coach. Some of the people I coach are coaches themselves, either formally or in their Scrum Master role. I have a coach. My coach has a coach. Most of the Senior Civil Service have coaches. So why isn’t coaching much more in demand across the organisation, and especially across our agile delivery teams?

Part of the reason is that asking for coaching is culturally not something that most people think of. Perhaps there is a bit of a stigma about asking for help; maybe people think it is a remedial thing in some way? Maybe people confuse it with career mentoring or training or management?

And with agile delivery specifically, perhaps it is a bit of a victim of its simplicity. The Scrum Guide is only 19 pages long, and you can be appropriately certified in just two days! Even the advanced scaled approaches are just a few hours of a training course to become an expert. But it is easy to overlook the first page of the Scrum Guide where it warns that Scrum is “Easy to Understand; Difficult to Master”.

Scrum is lightweight, simple to understand, and difficult to master

That brings me to the title of this blog, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Because another reason why people aren’t asking for coaching is that they don’t see the value in it to them; they don’t think they need it. They think they are already good enough at Agile and don’t need any help. This trait was described by psychologists Dr David Dunning and Dr Justin Kruger in 1999 when they described the cognitive bias in which people form wrong conclusions or make poor judgements because they rate their level of competence as being much higher than it is.

In other words, mainly when people are relatively inexperienced, they think they are much better than they are. Dunning and Kruger describe this visually with two axes – actual wisdom (made up from experience and knowledge) and confidence in your ability. As understanding grows early in your development of a skill, confidence multiplies. So quickly, that it’s tempting to believe that you are already an expert. If your wisdom continues to grow, however, it becomes clearer that there is a lot to learn and your confidence in your ability crashes. Even though you know more than you did, the realisation that there is a lot you don’t understand dents your confidence. This summit – where you don’t know a lot but think you do – is called Mount Stupid.

Graph of wisdom vs confidence - the Dunning-Kruger Effect

In real terms, this level of wisdom might be taking a Certified Scrum Master course and passing the exam. Or doing a management course and starting to manage for the first time. Or graduating with a qualification. We have all been there; I know I certainly have – many times. And it’s a nice place to be – Full of knowledge, confidence and pride.

The problem is when people don’t gain the wisdom to have the self-realisation that there is a lot more to learn. They get to The Peak of Mount Stupid and stay there. Ideally, a person starts applying their learning, gains experience, grows and develops their skills and in doing so moves to the right, with the consequential dip in confidence. But often, people don’t. Because they have a false perception of the amount of wisdom they have, compared to the amount they could have, they don’t see the need to develop and can do a lot of damage. They can give poor advice, make poor decisions and have poor judgement because they lack the greater wisdom to spot that.

Before I came across this model, I used to say that the better you become at Agile, the worse you think you are. This is because you get better at identifying improvements that you can make, and you spot problems earlier. This is what it feels like to be on the way down towards the valley, and up the other side. It can be a bit overwhelming knowing the number of things you don’t have knowledge or experience of yet.