Article by Herb Rubenstein, President, Sustainable Business Group


In today’s fast-paced business world, staying ahead of the competition is more crucial than ever. With the recent struggles the economy has endured, one key element in your organization’s sustainability strategy planning is the evolution into a “learning organization.” 

It is important for organizations to be successful in their sustainability strategies, but it is also important for them to know why the strategy was successful. Daryl Conner uses the term “consciously competent” to describe the situation when a person or organization is both successful and has learned the key ingredients and processes that will assist in achieving future success.

Organizational capacity for growth is enhanced by the creation of conscious learning resulting from experimentation, from implementing new strategies and from undertaking new activities.

Consciously Competent

In many businesses and non-profits the approach is to try “x” or “y” and see if it works over time. Most often, people inside of the organizations can rarely tell you why an activity worked or did not work. We acknowledge that serendipity may play some role in organizational success; but more often than not there is no clear understanding of the key factors that led to that success.

Understanding why and how an organization’s actions produced results is critical to being able to replicate that success, and to build on it to promote future breakthrough growth.

An organization is consciously competent when it understands why its actions produce, both internally and externally, results, and it can teach its entire organization (and others) why the result occurred. An organization is not consciously competent when it cannot determine quickly why something is working or not working.

For example, two chefs may each produce a great dish. Ask one how he or she did it and the chef may not be able to describe the recipe at all. The chef may be able to reproduce the dish, but cannot teach others how he or she does it. The chef is not conscious about all the ingredients, their amounts, the order, the cooking process, or why the exact combinations worked so well for the dish.

Ask another chef who has studied cooking from a different, more conscious, vantage point and he or she can show you exactly the recipe followed, the technique employed, and can describe the role of each ingredient.

The first chef will not have the ability to teach others or transfer his or her knowledge, skill or ability in his or her organization. This chef will not be able to create a legacy of improved culinary skills in succeeding generations. Most importantly, the chef who is not consciously competent will not be able to generate breakthrough economic growth through creating a cooking school and opening up four-star restaurants around the globe.

While the chef example may seem somewhat far-fetched in an article about sustainability strategies for entrepreneurial organizations, a close look at the restaurant industry reveals there is no successful large scale “four-star” restaurant chain in the world. The restaurant chains that thrive are generally “no star” operations, yet they are very consciously competent in their ability to make bad food that sells well.

The high-end restaurant market is dominated by chefs that are fabulously competent, but not consciously competent and therefore cannot expand their economic base.  Becoming consciously competent is one of the silver bullets to sustainability strategies as shown by the fast food and other franchise operations.

In the software development world, accurate, clearly worded documentation represents the consciously competent part of this highly creative industry. Yet, software developers often require six months to a year after the development of their custom-made software to document each step in the process. Outsourcing companies like Information Experts, Inc. are now growing rapidly to meet the demand to write documentation and on-line help systems for the software industry.

A critical test for sustainable growth in entrepreneurial organizations is to devote sufficient resources to becoming consciously competent while not getting so bogged down in the process that the creative elements start to lag.


Today with the use of video and other forms of technology, organizations will be able to document more carefully how they undertake activities. This allows the knowledge obtainable from a careful study of “best practices” to be bottled and disseminated throughout the organization quickly and at low cost.

The communication technology available can give organizations the ability to test the knowledge of each employee (and customer) periodically, if not daily.  With this, we can begin to measure quickly just how much of the newly created knowledge and conscious competence is spreading throughout your organization. Then the transition to a “learning organization” will ensure successful sustainability and growth strategies.

About the Author

Herb Rubenstein is the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, THE LEEEGH, which stands for leadership in education, energy, environment, governance and health.  He is also the President of the Sustainable Business Group, a consulting firm to businesses, He is an adjunct professor of strategic management at the Global Energy Management Program of the University of Colorado Denver.

He is the lead author of Breakthrough, Inc.: High Growth Strategies for Entrepreneurial Organizations, lead author of Leadership Development for Educators, and the author of the American Bar Association book, Leadership for Lawyers.  He has authored over 100 articles and over 80 videos on business strategy, entrepreneurship, leadership, and improving organizations.

He can be reached at or 303 910-7961. The website for the Sustainable Business Group is and for THE LEEEGH please see You can learn more about Mr. Rubenstein’s books at, and view his videos at and

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