The 3 Key Components of “Skill”

Blog -11172015In developing ourselves and our teams, we frequently use the word “skill” to identify resource gaps, clarify needs, recruit employees and evaluate performance. But throughout my career, I’ve come to realize that skill is not a single thing. Rather, I believe that skill is made up of 3 separate and distinct components that together can not only improve our understanding, but our communication as well.

These 3 components are EducationExperience and Instinct.

 1. Education

Education is defined as “the process of receiving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.”  Education is the foundation for skill, and whenever we think about improving skills in ourselves or others, we often think of this dimension. But while value can be gained through education, it is often lacking on its own.

Education improves skill by:

  • Imbedding the knowledge of core concepts
  • Developing self-discipline and organization
  • Enabling development of the learning process

However, education alone does not address the following:

  • Practical application: Book knowledge is often theoretical — explaining trends and teaching high-level practices. But applying these theories in the real world is often quite different.
  • FlexibilityEducation teaches that answers are either “right and wrong”. But problems in the real world are not so straight forward. Ultimately, high dependence on education can prevent flexibility and innovation when situations are more variable.

2. Experience

Experience is defined as “the process or fact of personally observing, encountering or undergoing something.”  In this dimension, a person not only KNOWS something, but they have LIVED IT. Oscar Wilde describes experience it this way:

“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first, and the lesson afterward.”

This is an important dimension of skill and is often the easiest demonstrate. But even with experience-based skill, there are still both positives and negatives to consider:

Experience provides the following added benefits:

  • Increased confidence having successfully handled a situation before
  • Decreased risk in delivering results
  • Practical realism of the situation based on knowledge from the past

But reliance on experience alone still leaves some voids to consider:

  • Personal bias: Since experience is personal, it is internalized into a person and can lead to bias. We’ve all heard before, “at X Company, we did it this way!” But while leveraging experience is good, understanding the impact of past experience on bias is also important.
  • Overconfidence: Having lived something before can lead us to get overconfident and miss potential risks as a result. Understanding that similar roles don’t guarantee similar outcomes is key.

3. Instinct

Instinct is defined as “an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action; a natural aptitude or gift”. Unlike the first two, this dimension is not learned. It’s a natural gift born into a person, which enhances their skill as a result. While no amount of education or experience can create instinct where there is none, development over time is required to strengthen instinct and mitigate potential risk.

Instinct enhances skill and builds value in the following ways:

  • Enables speed of flexibility and problem solving
  • Evaluates and manages risk and return
  • Synthesizes and simplifies complex situations into relevant parts

At the same time, instinct alone is insufficient and can lead to the following gaps:

  • Inability to calibrate: As a natural skill, people often describe it as coming from deep within. E.g. “gut feel” or “going with their gut”. But the accuracy of this is much harder to calibrate, and as a result, can sometimes be wrong.
  • Rushed or snap decisions: Instinct when developed and proven over time can breed self-confidence and self-reliance. When this goes to far, however, it can lead to snap decisions or to ignoring real data.


Putting it together

In assessing and developing skill in ourselves and others it is helpful to consider all three of these dimensions. But it’s also important to know that different roles require a different mix of these. If we think about skill as a pie chart with 3 pieces – Education, Experience and Instinct —  we can then consider how the balance may change depending on the skill required.

Here are three examples:

Entry Level Position
Entry level positions are highly skewed toward Education. Candidates are required to have the right education for the field, but at this early career level, experience and instinct are things to be developed over time. The skill pie chart in this case may look like this.
Technician Positions
Technicians must not only be educated in the tools and processes of their role, but also have proven experience in doing it. While execution is key, instinct typically falls to a lower priority. The skill pie for this job might look more like this.
Business Manager Roles
The role of a business manager depends on all three dimensions of skill. In addition to requirements for education and prior experience, Business Managers must also demonstrate the instinct to balance complexity and deliver results. The skill pie for this job might be more balanced between the three.


Whether we are working on our own career development, staffing key positions or developing our team, being able to understand and assess skill effectively is important. I have found that expanding my definition of skill to three separate dimensions of Education, Experience and Instinct helps me better:

  • Assess organizational skills and gaps
  • Recruit and hire positions more successfully
  • Target development opportunities for ourselves and others
  • Improve mentoring activities

QUESTION: Which dimensions are most important for your role? How can you use these 3 dimensions to mentor others? Share your experiences & answers with me below.

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Jill Cohen is a seasoned senior-level executive, with a proven track record for visioning opportunity, driving business growth and sustaining profitability. Contact Jill for more information, or visit her website to read more content & learn about services and successes.


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