Competency Modeling: 10 Mistakes to Avoid

by Deborah Bell

As Vice President, Consulting, Deborah conducts assessments, manages consulting projects, and designs and delivers custom solutions. She enjoys building relationships with her clients and uncovering their needs so she can serve as a trusted adviser and business partner.

Most organizations recognize the need for competency models.  Many spend a lot of time and money creating them.  Unfortunately, there are 10 common mistakes that people make when it comes to competency modeling projects. Here’s what they are and how to avoid them.

#1.  The right stakeholders aren’t involved.  Competency Modeling is not an “HR” activity.  While HR usually takes the lead, when it’s done right, they involve leaders from across the business to get their input, buy-in, and support.  To get them interested and willing to commit time to the project, you need to build a business case for why the project is important.  This leads to #2 below.  

#2.  The reasons for doing it are unclear.  Always start with the end in mind. What problem are you trying to solve? Clearly link the work to your organization’s Mission, Vision and Values, and strategic goals.  Explain what processes it will support and the anticipated business impact.  Include metrics when possible. 

#3.  A waterfall approach is used instead of agile.  One of the most heartbreaking things that can happen to a project team is spending months creating a “masterpiece”, only to find out that your internal customers don’t like it.  Using an iterative approach allows you to get timely feedback and make adjustments along the way so there are no disappointing surprises at the conclusion of the project. 

#4.  The competency framework is overly complex.  This isn’t rocket science, so don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.  A holistic view of behavioral competencies can be captured in 4 main buckets: Thinking, Working, Relating, and Leading.  You can modify the wording to fit your culture, but keep it simple so people can easily relate to it and remember it. 

#5.  There are too many or too few competencies.  I have literally seen models with 32 competencies – come on, really? Too many becomes unmanageable and too few becomes useless.  In general, strive for no more than 12 competencies in total, not all of which will be needed for every job or job level.     

#6.  Definitions are neither distinct nor measurable.  This is one of the biggest problems with most competency modelsWhen two or more competencies have a lot of overlapping descriptions, it means that they are not sufficiently differentiated.  No double dipping!  The definitions also need to be behavioral and observable so that they are measurable.  Try this exercise – read the initial definition and cross out any words that are not action-oriented or observable. Be concise. You can go into (somewhat) more detail if you write behavioral indicators by level.

#7.  The wording is overdramatized and unrealistic.  Crisp wording, using plain language, yields the best results. Do not include flowery language or hyperbole.  The wording should resonate with your employees.  If it doesn’t, they won’t buy into it.

#8.  They are overly detailed.  Two problems here.  First, it makes the task of updating the model in response to changing business needs arduous and therefore, unlikely to be tackled. Second, most people skim over the details or simply tune out when they see a lot of writing.  Write only as much as you think people will read.

#9.  They are not formally or consistently communicated.  Assemble a cross-functional team to determine the communication strategy at different levels and any needed training to support the roll out.  Find creative ways to get the message out.  Be sure to highlight the benefits to your employees (e.g., competencies serve as the basis for career pathing). 

#10.  They are not integrated into all HR processes. Once the project is completed, don’t let it die on the vine!  Prior to meeting the final project milestones, prioritize the HR processes for integration. Keep the momentum going by appointing an advocate to lead the first integration project team.  Systematically roll out the new competency model, incorporating what you learned from previous roll outs. 

When carefully planned and facilitated by someone who has learned from these mistakes, your competency modeling project can be done in a time- and cost-efficient manner that brings about the desired business outcomes.

Learn about our approach to competency modeling: Read More

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