Communication patterns for people of various knowledge and experience

Dreyfus model of skill acquisition provides hints for building effective communication - no matter if you want to delegate a task, ask for help, or just convey an idea.

Adam Brodziak
7 min readSep 17, 2019

Imagine that you’re an experienced software developer calling ISP technical support, because router is broken. How would you feel when they ask you if it’s plugged-in, if lights are blinking, or if you tried turning it off and on again? Let me explain why they do ask stupid questions and why you feel annoyed.

Imagine an opposite situation when you have no mechanical skills, nor experience. Your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The car mechanic tells you that oil pump needs to be replaced. You hear it’s an easy job, so you can do it yourself. How useful is that for you? What if you would get step-by-step guide instead?

You will learn

  • How skills are acquired and developed.
  • How to judge your (and your colleagues) skill level.
  • Am I Competent, yet?
  • The importance of growing beyond Beginner state.
  • How to communicate your needs.
  • How to delegate tasks effectively.

What is Dreyfus model of skill acquisition?

Brain as a PCB
Brain as a sophisticated computer was all the rage in the ‘80

Dreyfus brothers worked on Artificial Intelligence in the ’80 of XX century. Back then General AI seemed like a close target [sic!], but they’ve stumbled upon a problem. General AI was supposed to learn skills like humans do, but we (humans!) had very little clue how we learn. They’ve researched the subject and came up with a model.

Dreyfus model of skill acquisition defined 5 stages of learning:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced Beginner
  3. Competent
  4. Proficient
  5. Expert

I’ll dwell into properties of those stages in a second, but first let me tell you why it matters. The model has been used for US Army pilot training (original case of research), applied in nursing industry and is a foundation of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning book by Andy Hunt. In other words: it has been battle tested in practice and proven to be useful.

5 Stages of skill acquisition

Bear in mind that those stages are for specific skill. You could be an Expert in one and Novice in another skill.

1. Novice

  • Have little or no previous experience
  • Don’t want to learn, just accomplish a goal
  • Don’t know how to respond to mistakes
  • Are vulnerable to confusion
  • Rules-based, context free

2. Advanced Beginner

  • Starts trying tasks on their own
  • Have difficulty troubleshooting
  • Want information fast
  • Can place some advice in context required
  • Begin to formulate some principles, but without holistic understanding

3. Competent

  • Develop conceptual models
  • Troubleshoot problems on their own
  • Seek out expert user advice
  • Conscious, long-term plans and goals
  • Beyond stimulus-response

4. Proficient

  • Want to understand the larger conceptual framework
  • Are frustrated by oversimplified information
  • Will self-correct previous poor task performance
  • Learn from experience of others
  • Asks difficult questions. First one to be let go.

5. Expert

  • Are primary sources of knowledge and information
  • Continually look for better methods
  • Work primarily from intuition, not reason
  • Forcing to follow set rules degrades performance

For the first 3 stages progress is natural and comes with time (usually). Reaching Proficient and Expert levels requires not only focused training (i.e. deliberate practice), but also broadening the horizons.

Dreyfus model stages explained as expending brain meme.

There is a risk that Beginner will think he’s an Expert (fallacy named Dunning-Kruger Effect), which forms rather peculiar stage: Expert Beginner. The terms has been coined by Erik Dietrich, who devoted an ebook and series of blog posts to describe this topic. Fortunately Beginner is the last stage that is prone to such fallacy, as Competent and above have enough awareness.

How to use Dreyfus stages to help my development?

Honest self-evaluation is the 1st step to expertise. Do not jump straight to becoming Expert though, but rather focus on reaching Competent level for main skills. An Expert is someone who devoted the career, often a lifetime, to become one. Keep in mind that changing the way you think, probably even on a hardware level, takes years and tremendous effort.

Am I Competent, yet?

So why becoming Competent is so important? It’s the fist stage where you’re able to work independently: make plans and reach goals, deal with problems as they arise, know when to seek out for expert advice and apply it effectively. All that is possible due to conceptual models that are being developed in the mind, seeing more than just a task that is in front of you.

In order to evaluate yourself look for the traits describing Competent (or any other stage for that matter). The goals is to do honest evaluation and being aware of cognitive biases: Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned before and Impostor Syndrome that works the other way around (higher stages undervalue themselves, think they are on the lower stage).

Essentially you usually want to go through Novice and Advanced Beginner phase as fast as possible for skills that are important. That means taking on more and more complex tasks, reading on the good practices and standards, collaborating with others and asking for help (a lot!). The latter ones are probably the most important aspects.

Use mentor help to become Competent

So you’re Novice or Beginner but want to up your game. The single best advice I can give you is: find a mentor. Why it is so important? Let’s look at some of the traits:

  • mentor will help avoid mistakes or deal with them (for Novice)
  • mentor will clear out the confusion (for Novice)
  • mentor can help troubleshoot problems (for Beginner)
  • mentor can explain the context and its importance (for Beginner)
  • you’ll learn how to get help from mentor (from Competent)
  • mentor can show you next subjects to improve or explore

Becoming Competent makes yourself a valuable part of a team and organization. Plus it’s the stage past the biggest issues, including confusing yourself with an Expert. This is the stage you realise how little you know about the subject. Reaching Proficient requires deliberate practice and broadening horizons. To become Expert it is a career choice, or even a calling.

Evaluate others

Similar evaluation can be applied to people you interact with. Being aware of their stage of a particular skill is a great help to communicate effectively. It allows to tailor the message according to person needs, for example:

  • step-by-step instructions for Novice or Beginner
  • a problem with its context for Proficient or Expert

While evaluating others keep in mind that Dreyfus stages are for specific skill. Someone can be Expert in their field (i.e. brain surgery), but Novice in others (i.e. baking cookies).

Communicate appropriately

Here are the guidelines how to communicate with person that reached particular stage. Those are useful when you ask someone to do something, assign a task, delegate or ask for collaboration. You can use the same framework to ask for help, i.e. if you’re Novice ask for step-by-step directions.

Novice needs context-free steps

  • Provide step-by-step instructions how to complete the task.
  • Be specific what needs to be done. Use precise values, i.e. bake cookies for 20 minutes in 200°C temperature.
  • Tell what is the expected outcome, as Novice is not able to judge if they done it right.
  • Make steps small, so it’s fast to see success. It boosts motivation.
  • Technical support rule books are good examples of context-free rules that can guide even complete Novice somewhere.

Advanced Beginner wants task with guidelines

  • Beginner is happy to tackle task, but might require some guidance where to start or which direction to take.
  • Provide all necessary information (if possible), so no need to consult other sources (motivation!).
  • Explain how to deal with problems (i.e. escalation path), as Beginner can’t troubleshoot yet.
  • If possible provide context, so Beginner can try to formulate mental models.

Competent wants goal to reach

  • Competent wants to receive goals, rather than specific tasks.
  • Is able to navigate at the crossroads (make informed decisions) and troubleshoot problems.
  • Providing context (not only task at hand) is necessary, so Competent can make decisions on their own.
  • Knows when to ask expert advice or escalate the issue.

Proficient will ask for problem and context

  • Proficient will be annoyed with oversimplified information.
  • Needs to be provided with context, because every problem is different.
  • Will ask a lot of (annoying) questions to understand the conceptual framework.
  • Is able to apply maxims. If you get a maxim (i.e. use TDD) in response, ask for specifics.

Expert will ask what is the pain

  • No need to provide much information upfront, just explain the pain.
  • Expert know the difference between irrelevant details and the very important details (but maybe not on the conscious level).
  • Expert works from intuition, so might not be able to explain their reasoning.
  • An example is Dr. House, who by looking at the patient can judge what tests need to be done.

Partying words

Keep in mind Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is just a simplification of reality. In addition it’s one of many models of learning. What’s important to remember that it should not be confused with seniority or hierarchy in the organization, as it applies to specific skill, not to person.

There are 3 basic things I’d like to ask you:

  • Be aware of your stage, especially when asking for help or delegating.
  • Bear in mind people’s stage, or consider they might be a Novice.
  • Let others know about Dreyfus model and how to use it.

My personal goal for this post was to organize my thoughts and become more proficient at using Dreyfus model in life. It was very useful for me over the years to guide my career, but more importantly, to communicate with others and help them develop. I hope you will make good use of it too. Please share, clap or send it to people you care about.