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Why Competency Models Fail

Countless organizations use competency models to outline the key knowledge, skills, abilities, and aptitudes (KSAAs) they want to see in their individual contributors, managers, and executives. Competency models provide a structured framework for defining and developing those KSAAs that have the biggest impact on an organization’s performance. When used effectively, they become a roadmap to improved organizational effectiveness. When used ineffectively, they can lead to a lot of wasted time, energy, and expense.

Over the years, we have found that there are 7 common traps that organizations fall prey to when developing and implementing a competency model in their organization.

1. One size fits all: What it takes to be successful as an individual contributor in the organization is very different than what it takes to be a manger or an executive. It is helpful to tier your competencies based on the job level within the organization. 

Click here to see an example of tiered competencies. 

2. Pulling it out of thin air: It can be easy to fall into what we call the “post-it note frenzy”, where competencies are picked at random and plastered to the wall in a mess of post-it notes. While brainstorming is good, competencies should be limited to only the KSAAs that will have the greatest impact for your organization. They should be tied to the organization’s values, and should focus on what is truly important.

3. Magical “Unicorn”: In our blog post: Stop It! The Unicorn Does Not Exist!, we discuss how futile it is to try to hire an unrealistically “perfect” job candidate. The same holds true for a competency model. If you fill your model with alphabet soup of every possible ideal competency, your model will inevitably be a flop. Too many competencies will lead to confusion and may become a demotivator. Again, stick to competencies that are going to have the greatest impact for your organization.

4. Vague language: All too often we see organizations with the best of intentions spending a great deal of effort coming up with competencies, only to forget to behaviorally operationalize them. Words can take on a different meaning based on the experiences each individual brings to the table. So, make sure to behaviorally operationalize your competencies to avoid any confusion.   

5. Stuck in the mud: After spending all of the effort it takes to create a competency model, the last thing most people think about is revising it. However, your competency model should be a living, breathing creation, and should evolve and adapt to the changing needs of your organization and its mission. What works for you today, may not work for you five years or ten years down the line.

6. Don’t know when to go at it alone, and when to seek help: Creating and implementing a competency model is a lot of work! Before you get started, make sure you take inventory of your internal resources (time, effort, and expertise). Just like a kitchen remodel project, it’s important to know if you have what it takes to get the project done on your own or when to call in the professionals.

7. Lack of follow through: Many organizations have spent a great deal of money, time, and effort developing a competency model, only to watch it die on the vine because they didn’t invest in the follow through. The key to successfully implementing a competency model is to keep the momentum going after you rollout your model, and make sure it becomes a part of all aspects of the employee life cycle.

Take Away: Above all, remember when done properly, Competency Models can lead to improved organizational effectiveness. However, when not done well, Competency Models can lead to confusion, demotivation, and a lot of wasted time and money. 

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