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Tyranny of Competence


Source: http://www.cold-moon.com/images/Motivators/motivators.htm

Chatting with a friend about losses in staff in my own office spurred a return remark. "You think you got it bad?" asked a close friend, whom we'll call "James." He continued, "I've lost half my team and I'm in a bigger district than you that's growing!"

In a relatively short time period, James, a fellow CTO, will have lost 6 staff members of his 10 member team. This constitutes half his highly specialized team, supporting special student information management systems that must work. Each staff member is in a highly specialized position, each, THE expert. Each has been offered better paying positions, called up for military duty, or left due to personal issues (e.g. family leave act with the option to not return).

"James," I joked with James, "what did you do to them?" While the answers to that question are great reflection questions for any leader--especially in light of the quote Steve Polin shared about unleashing team members' creativity--the question I want to reflect on is, how did these talented individuals contributions lead to what Robert Quinn (Deep Change) characterizes as "the tyranny of competence?"

Quinn defines the tyranny of competence in the following way:

An individual contributor is a person whose technical competence is judged in terms of singular rather than interdependent action. The more unique the individual output, the more powerful the person becomes. The overapplication of the technical paradigm by an individual can lead to a negative state called the tyranny of competence.

For James' team--now wondering what it will do without key staff members supporting large information management system the District had purchased and upon which it was dependent, it's clear that each person's competence in a singular area--and no one else on the team who knew how to do something--put them in this situation.

How many others leaders in this situation would do exactly what James did to deal with the problem? Here's how the plan goes:

When you find out a valued staff member is leaving, you have them

  1. craft a transition plan,
  2. schedule a series of meetings to explore how, not what, this person was accomplishing what s/he had been tasked with doing.
  3. assign new roles to other staff and
  4. adjust the deadlines and expectations (usually, longer and down, respectively)

But whose fault is this? Is this 4 step approach really the best way?

The fault lies with the leader, of course. There is so little time, too small a team to accomplish great things. The assumption is, we'll keep going as long as possible and eventually we can circle back to find out how, to do that much needed cross-training. But it's not enough when you have to learn it at the last minute. And, when you're in my situation, losing so much staff in 3 months, one of which was a backup for another, puts you in trouble.

In such a situation, a leader is faced with an impossible dilemma--do less in the face of increasing demands that result from past success, require less staff to learn more to meet rising demand, try to hold steady with existing commitments and delay new ones. All this in addition to requiring staff to learn what they can about areas they are not passionate about.

Quinn says that once you reach this stage, there is a lack of communication, commitment, and cooperation. The challenge organizations with these "teams of experts" face is that they do not function as a "cohesive team." From my reading of Quinn, James needs to do several things:

  • Hire new staff that can 1) work as a team and 2) have the skills to be technically competent.
  • Change the culture of his remaining workers to ensure that the focus is on teamwork.
  • Establish a model of teaming and learning that does not make any one person a tyrant of competency.

A part of me says this isn't enough. What do you think? What would you do when highly competent staff members leave who you know you can't replace easily? What does your organization do?

About the Blogger


Miguel Guhlin serves as Director of Instructional Technology Services for a large urban school district in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Read his blog online at http://mguhlin.org.
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