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May 08 2018
Accomplishment-Based Systems: The Alternative to Competency Modeling

Years ago, a colleague and I published an article that did not get much attention, devoted to the contrast between competency modeling and an accomplishment-based approach, based on the work of Thomas F. Gilbert, pioneer in the field of human performance improvement.  At that time, competency modeling was relatively new, shiny, and heavily promoted by training companies and consulting firms. On the surface of it, competency modeling seemed to offer a way to define capability in a way that was convenient and could form the basis of discussion about performance. Countless organizations devoted many millions of dollars and person years to developing competency models, building performance management systems in which people received “ratings” on those competencies, developing learning management systems and curriculum architectures built on competencies, and so forth.  In my view, it was a scam. 

While I have hesitated for years to say this very loudly, we are finally to the point where it is possible to raise the issue in public because some leading edge human resources professionals have begun to see that “there must be something better.”  As I discussed in a previous blog post, competency-based systems are deeply unfair, ineffective, and do not, in fact, provide a foundation for a truly performance-based approach to leadership, management, or talent development.

My recent blog produced a number of thoughtful responses on LinkedIn and in other places where it was shared.  It appears that many people acknowledge the problems with competency-based systems, but no one has a good alternative. I’ve seen a few discussions in the last year or so about “traits” as an alternative to competencies. Beside putting us back even further in the history of psychology and personality theory to a time when the “inner person” was the focus of analysis and investigation, traits are just another vague and abstract way to attribute characteristics to the individual that may or may not have much impact on performance.

Performance is the result of a system of influences that include individual elements such as skills and knowledge, personal experience, and individual motives and preferences – all accounting for a relatively small portion of the variance (estimated at around 20%). Far more impactful (about 80%) are features of the work environment and management practices that either support or obstruct desired performance, including expectations and feedback, the tools and resources (including processes and work design) needed to perform, and consequences or incentives that motivate people to do their best or discourage them with intended or unintended punishment. 

Performance in the workplace (and one could argue, anywhere else) is comprised of three elements: behavior that produces products called accomplishments (we call them work outputs) that are valuable because they contribute to one or more business or societal results.  Each of these elements is essential, and without any one of them, we cannot define nor determine the value of the performance itself. This is as true at the level of individual performance as it is for teams, processes, and whole organizations. We perform to produce value for the organization or for society. And the value we produce comes, not in the form of costly behavior, but as valuable accomplishments, countable “things” that may be either tangible (e.g., widgets, documents) or less tangible (e.g., decisions or relationships). 

One can define just about any job with a set of between 5 and 30 major accomplishments (we call them work outputs).  We can discuss what makes for a “good” instance of any accomplishment as a way to set expectations and provide feedback. We can arrange conditions to enable people to produce desired accomplishments at high levels of quality, consistency, and productivity. And we can align those conditions with positive outcomes so that people are fully engaged in producing needed accomplishments and are recognized for doing so.

Unlike competencies, which are abstract category names for often large collections of specific types of behavior, accomplishments are very specific and definable. We can count them. We can also determine whether someone has ever produced a given accomplishment, or a similar one, as we engage them in behavioral interviews during the hiring process. Leaders and managers can discuss with their people the most important accomplishments needed right now, which might need improvement, and what accomplishments an individual might need to add to their capability for the next level in the career ladder.

We can create job descriptions based on major accomplishments, as some of our more advanced client organizations have begun to do. But that is a big job that probably would best be done over time with a computer database serving as a repository. We do better to train and empower our leaders and managers to work with their people to define accomplishments for each job, to target them for development, to manage them, and to continuously improve the team’s ability to produce them. This is what we do in our Coach-Manage-Lead family of programs.

One of the many advantages of making talent development and performance management systems accomplishment-based rather than competency-based is that accomplishments define the value contributed by individuals and teams, what we as leaders or talent development professionals need from our people. Competencies, on the other hand, are characteristics that people might or might not have, (assessed with the “refined opinion” of rating scales) and that we can certainly take into account if we wish to do so as we select or develop people. But because they are abstract labels for categories of behavior, they are only abstractly related to performance. That is, one can have every conceivable competency, but still not demonstrate required performance.  I don’t know about you, but when I select or manage an employee, I would like to make decisions based on valuable performance rather than on abstract indicators of potential.

One can easily have a 1:1 conversation with someone about a given accomplishment and what will be required to produce it. One can manage people day-to-day around accomplishments, as well as defining annual strategy about the accomplishments we will need our people to produce in order to achieve business objectives.  With an accomplishment-based approach, we frankly do not need abstract descriptions of behavior potential because we can talk about actual performance. Accomplishments are the practical and far more manageable alternative to competencies. They define the value contributed by human performance, and should be our focus.

One of our great mentors, Dr. Joe Harless, created a system called Accomplishment Based Curriculum Development (ABCB). This was, in my view, just the beginning. We can have Accomplishment Based Talent Management that meets the requirements for today’s Agile Talent Development far better than a competency-based approach because we can talk about real job and organizational requirements needed now to keep up with the pace of change – this week, this month, or this quarter.

There’s a lot more to be said about this topic. But we are finally opening it up for discussion, and I welcome comments and suggestions from our friends and colleagues.

- Carl Binder, CEO


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