Awareness-Ability Matrix and Achieving Mastery


“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
–Michelangelo

Recently I visited my old office in Building 30, one that I have rarely visited over the last two-and-a-half years, to pack in preparation for a move to another office I’m sure to rarely visit for the next two-and-a-half years.  (The strategic planning work has taken me to a temporary office called “The Bunker”.)  As I was packing I glanced at several old notes and diagrams I had drawn on the whiteboard in previous years.  One diagram in particular caught my eye – it was my adaptation of the “awareness-ability” matrix that I’ve encountered on a number of occasions, most recently when I read John Maxwell’s book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”.  I had drawn a 2×2 matrix on my whiteboard and labeled the dimensions as “awareness: unaware and aware, and ability: ineffective and effective” with four numbered quadrants 1-4, with Quadrant 1 representing unaware and ineffective, Quadrant 2 representing aware and ineffective, Quadrant 3 representing aware and effective, and Quadrant 4 representing unaware and effective.

In Maxwell’s treatment, the four quadrants represented the Law of Process, where one must go through each of the quadrants as part of the process of leadership.  There are no shortcuts.  I adapted his model into one that described the training and certification program for new flight controllers in my area, where I talked about each quadrant as follows:

  • Quadrant 1, “Clueless.”  You don’t know what you don’t know.  This is where you are one Day 1 of the training program as a flight controller.  You wonder, “What in the world do I need to know?  Can I even do it?”
  • Quadrant 2, “Scared Witless.”  Now, you know what you don’t know.  You arrive at this point after a few weeks, having been exposed in some way to the job requirements of being a flight controller, by taking a number of lessons, and getting ready to step into Mission Control for the first time for your first training simulation.  I expect that you will make a ton of mistakes, yet that is how you will learn at this point.
  • Quadrant 3, “Certified.”  Now, you know what you know.  The goal of the training program is to get you to this point, feeling comfortable sitting in the chair in Mission Control, confident that you can do your job through a combination of what you know or can find out quickly, and by running your written procedures.  It is my plan to get you here after one year.  You can answer questions from your Flight Director crisply, even able to say that when you don’t know the answer you know how to find out and when you’ll report back with an answer.  You are now ready to support operations from Mission Control.  Congratulations!
  • Quadrant 4, “Mastery.”  Now, you’re on auto-pilot and can do the job in your sleep.  To get here requires experience and time, doing the job as a flight controller and developing the reputation as someone who is an expert in your field.  We also call this a “senior flight controller.”

I left unanswered the question, “How long will it take me to become a senior flight controller?”  I really didn’t know – something on the order of a few years.  I viewed it a being in the eye of the beholder, dependent on a number of unquantifiable factors, and subjective.

Then, I realized I may have stumbled into the answer to this question recently.  This last November,while browsing on the internet, I ran across a book review that asserted that to achieve mastery, one needed to devote 10,000 hours to practice.  (The book was about more than this, yet this is the salient point I took away from the review.)  I gave this figure of “10,000 hours” some careful consideration.  If I assume for a flight controller a 40-hour work week and 50 work weeks per year, 10,000 hours equates to 5 years of doing the job.  This figure seems to me to be in the right ballpark for a senior flight controller.  Now, the next time someone asks me, “How long will it take for me to become a senior flight controller?” I can answer with full confidence: about 10,000 hours!

This lesson takes me to the present day.  I view myself as the closest thing to an expert in developing procurement strategies for the work of our organization.  I developed this skill through about 100 hours of formal training concerning procurements and through service on three different source boards.  Let’s see – my first source board was for a little over a month (call it 400 hours) and my second was for about double that (call it 800 hours).  My third was for the year and a half that I’ve been back in Houston from DC, so call that one 3000 hours.  In total, that adds up to about 4300 hours.  This is well short of the 10,000 hours needed to achieve “mastery.”  My lesson here:  Although I’m the leader of the team, I am by no means the master of the topic.  I cannot lead through the expert mode of knowing all about procurement strategy development.  Clearly I don’t.  Instead, I need to rely upon the leadership techniques I’ve developed in doing other leadership roles, honed in the NASA leadership development program, and now get an opportunity to apply again to achieve an important result for my organization.  It is my ability to lead – not what I know about procurement – that my organization is counting on me to provide.  That is a warm, good feeling!

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Awareness-Ability Matrix and Achieving Mastery