Bill Scheessele


Progressing through the four stages of BD

Many of us have been exposed to the Four Stages of Learning Model developed by Abraham Maslow. Here, we are going to address how the business development professional can mature through three of the four stages of the model: Conscious Incompetence, Unconscious Competence and Conscious Competence.

BD chart 1

BD professionals known as Shepherds (those working with existing customers and existing capabilities), or Farmers (those who work with existing customers and new capabilities), typically exhibit an innate sense of BD. They are comfortable with their existing client relationships, and have confidence in their ability to solve problems given their past experience.

Shepherds and farmers are typically attentive, cautious, reserved, and non-threatening. They also display a genuine interest and concern for their client’s needs. They are not, however, comfortable with discussing new capabilities and would consider it presumptuous to present or “push” solutions.

A BD professional who exhibits these behavioral characteristics would be considered Unconsciously Competent. That is, they perform many of the correct behaviors, and are frequently successful at developing business. However, this success is largely achieved through their instincts – or by accident.

Some individuals at this stage, typically program managers and other applied personnel, find BD to be interesting, if not tolerable. And while they would never see themselves shifting primarily into the role of a BD person, they are willing to help in the revenue generating efforts of the organization. As such, BD Leadership would be wise to leverage a Shepherd/Farmer’s innate, unconsciously competent ability and treat them at valuable as BD assets.

Unfortunately, some Shepherds/Farmers are expected to sell or develop new business with little or no education or professional development. When this happens, the Shepherd/Farmer frequently defaults to their psychological comfort zone. They become tactically focused and promote technical capabilities they are familiar with – without focusing on developing a relationship with the prospect. As a result, they become less effective and more discouraged.

Some Unconsciously Competent individuals are “volun-told” to attend a typical sales-oriented training course. This process may be resented by the Shepherd/Farmer, as they do not want to be or be seen as a salesperson. It is a role they are not likely to embrace. Even if they do psychologically buy into any of the training, they still find themselves in a role they did not choose, with a requirement they did not accept. In addition, they are expected to leverage a previously established relationship for additional business.
BD chart 2  
In this scenario, the Shepherd/Farmer is on a path that leads to the stage of Conscious Incompetence. These individuals quickly learn that what they are doing is not effective, efficient, or produce the desired results. And trying harder never helps. Before long, a valuable BD asset becomes ineffective, unmotivated, and moves on.

You may wonder, can a BD professional move from Unconsciously Competent to Consciously Competent? Before this can happen, you must decide whether to move the individual from their successful role as a Shepherd or Farmer into the role of a Hunter or Warrior.

If you decide to continue to use the BD professional Shepherd/Farmer role, it is possible to help them to become Consciously Competent in their role. This could be achieved by teaching intelligence gathering skills using a proven Client Engagement Process (CEP). This process must mirror the early stages of the organization’s internal Opportunity Identification and Qualification (OI&Q)i process. The skills a Shepherd/Farmer will gain as part of learning a proven client engagement process will also be applicable to other professional roles.
A second, more strategic, challenge is to provide a professional development curriculum that allows the Unconsciously Competent individual to take on more revenue-generating responsibilities in a Consciously Competent manner.

It is not unusual for some organizations to gain some of their best Hunter/Warriors through this effort. By providing the right type of education and professional development, the BD professional learn process, thinking, skills, and discipline. This different level of curriculum of education and professional development includes a study of behavioral psychology, so an individual can consciously understand what to do, how to do it, and why to do it in a customer interactions.

The first challenge of BD leadership is to take an Unconsciously Competent Shepherd/Farmer and move them to the Consciously Competent stage as quickly as possible.

The second challenge is to select volunteers within this group and give them the appropriate education and professional development that will allow them to move into the Hunter/Warrior role.

When this happens, your BD professionals will know what to do, how to do it, and why they do it. They will also have the process, skills, discipline, and psychological mindset to develop, qualify, and shape new business that is so critical to strategic revenue growth.

About the Author

Bill Scheessele is the CEO of MBDi, a global business development services firm providing expertise in business development best practices in the national security, defense, scientific, energy and engineering industries. The firm offers BD consulting, strategy, planning and personnel services in addition to education workshops to help BD professionals identify hidden strengths, barriers to progress and opportunities for improvement. Learn more about MBDi, their revenue growth resources and their workshops at

Reader Comments

Wed, Oct 1, 2014 Lorin McCaltushic

Very helpful, insightful thinking. How could one not love a model that explicitly and comfortably, perhaps with firsthand knowledge, builds the concept of Incompetence into the rubric. Hooray for incompetence. If everyone were competent--especially among the government folk--there would be little to do or market to them, eh?

Tue, Sep 23, 2014 Jim Fannon

I find as many BD professionals encounter challenging conditions in dealing with some decision-making federal customers' personnel who exhibit a stagnant culture of conscious incompetence with lessons-learned, refuse to consider new innovative capabilities, even proven and documented as efficient and more cost effective.

Fri, Sep 19, 2014 Bruce Milligan Chantilly, VA

Hi Bill. These are interesting and useful concepts that I have not encountered before. One question/suggestion: Your summary indicates that BD leadership should move some BD pros from Unconsciously Competent to Consciously Competent. That would suggest these are stages 3 and 4, respectively. But your diagram at the beginning of the article has them numbered in the opposite order. I would enjoy understanding the apparent disconnect there... do we move people "backward" to a lower stage of learning? or is the diagram just misnumbered? Thanks for your thoughts.

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