The intersection of technology and leadership

Limitations of the Dreyfus Model

Last year, I ran a workshop at XP2009 and Agile 2009, helping people map behaviours to the different levels in the Dreyfus Model. Being a workshop for only 90 minutes, we only had time to introduce the model, generate a set of behaviours mapping them to each level in the model and only a small fraction of time thinking about where this might be useful in a coach’s toolbox.

I tend to use it as a way of encouraging people to self-assess their own behaviours, and as a way of seeing concrete, specific sets of behaviours that people in more advanced stages might find themselves.

We didn’t really get an opportunity to discuss the limitations of using the model in this way (remembering that all models are inherently limited in some manner).

Most useful for Novices
Ironically enough, this set of behaviours mapped in this way is only most useful to those who still remain Novices and less so, the Advanced Beginner. Novices need concrete rules, and directions. Advanced Beginners start to see context, yet it’s often helpful being specific about what sets of behaviours you might see at different stages.

Ironically, as you progress, using the Dreyfus Model in this way becomes less useful as you progress. I like to introduce this set of behaviours after people have had some experience with a certain practice. It helps people answer the question, “What does good look like?”

It’s not an exhaustive list
When I’ve run these workshops with other coaches, I find it interesting to see how they notice different sets of behaviours from what I would observe. Even when looking at a single practice, you have a multitude of behaviours at lots of different levels. It’s preciseness at describing specific sets of behaviour also has the risk of people only focusing on the prescribed behaviours instead of thinking about the sorts of behaviour that sits at this level.

I can’t imagine trying to list every single set of behaviour. As interesting as that might be, I think it would be impossible to capture, and difficult to communicate succinctly.

Best for personal development, not as performance evaluation criteria
It’s easy for managers to see a list of different levels, and then attempt of fit people into a box for performance evaluation. As much as their intention might be good good (professional growth) I think it’s easy to game.

I like to emphasise that this model is best used as a way for coach’s to help people self-assess, and for people to set their own goals about where they want to be.

Not the only tool to use
I like using this tool as a transitional tool, helping people jump the gap from Novice to Advanced Beginner and from Advanced Beginner to Competent. Beyond that, I would use less of this tool and look at other tools that help people self discover their information.


  1. Elizabeth Keogh

    Hi Pat,

    I wrote a post on using the Dreyfus model to grow experts here:

    I find Dreyfus for identifying people’s strengths, more than for getting novices to beginners. I tend to ignore any practice in which people are novices. Either they’re new to it, and will pick it up from others, from reading and from trying things out as part of the change programme, or they’re never going to be much good at it anyway. I prefer to find things they *are* good at and concentrate on those.

    For that, I love the knowledgeable and expert levels. They’re inspiring for people whose strengths are growing. It’s sometimes really hard to get an accurate “expert” level – especially if you have no experts around to model it from! – but even an inaccurate picture provides a roadmap forward from competent to knowledgeable. Once people become knowledgeable I like to teach them some basic coaching skills so they can help me out too!

    So, I find it less useful for Novices and most useful for people transitioning from Beginner to Competent, or from Competent to Knowledgeable (2.5 and 3.5 when I’m using numbers). Hope this explains why. What do you think?


  2. Patrick

    Hi Liz,

    I can see how using the models the way you do works very well. Similarly to you, I like to explain behaviours as a way of being objectively clear about what sets of behaviours you’d expect when attaining mastery. I think it’s useful at any level and I like your strengths-based focus (it becomes easier for people to attain mastery if its part of their strengths).

    I’ve been using it successfully to help communicate expectations with Novices (who need clear rules). I haven’t found it useful giving it too early (as there’s quite a lot of detail). I’ve also had some success helping others recognise how far they have come along and to help people celebrate success (often far too neglected I think).

    Thanks for reminding me of your blog post – it’s a great refresher (I remember reading it a long time ago).

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