Competency and Control Cultures: A More Challenging Agile Transformation

November 7, 2012

In my last post I discussed William Schneider’s take on Collaboration and Cultivation Cultures from his book The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work and how these two cultures fit more readily in an agile culture.

This post is Part Two, covering the Competency and Control cultures.

The Competency Culture
This culture is about the pursuit of excellence and the continual building of expertise because a Competency Culture accomplishes its objectives by knowing more about something than other organizations.

The mindset prevalent in a Competency Culture is one where products and services are viewed as things that can always be improved upon. In a Competency Culture today’s achievements are tomorrow’s baseline – with higher goals to strive for. This creates a sense of urgency coupled with intenseness with individuals in a Competency Culture.

People in a Competency Culture love a challenge. Difficult, complex problems represent a chance for them to test themselves. People in Competency Cultures are “voluminous information gatherers” and make decisions based on logic and facts, all while working under the pressure to make a decisive call quickly.

Leaders in Competency Cultures are never satisfied, and they are quite often hard taskmasters and they can be exacting in their expectations of others. Leaders in this culture have a single purpose and want to organize in ways that allow them to reach their goals. Leaders also foster a competitive atmosphere at the individual and group level, emphasizing incentives and differential rewards.

Structure isn’t the most critical element to leaders in Competency Cultures, they view structure as something “…that fosters the implementation of concepts...” – so the exact structure will vary according to the needs of the organization.

The implementation of an organizational structure does not translate into people being assigned to functional groups or tasks for the long term, however. Instead, people are assigned based on specific, time-bound issues or temporary projects with their performance closely measured and analyzed. High achievers love this because without being measured “they can’t prove to themselves that they are achieving.”

Competency Cultures are meritocracies where technical mastery is important. The more you know about your field, the better you do in this culture. And you will be in competition with others to demonstrate you competency. If you are looking to get hired into a Competency Culture, it helps to point to demonstrated competency and achievement.

The Control Culture
The basis of a Control Culture is the need for people to make an impact and to have influence that is achieved through control. Order, predictability and maintaining stability are very important to Control Cultures – which are typically structured hierarchically.

As you might imagine, titles and rank have great importance in Control Cultures along with the lines of authority that come with that structure and rank. The higher up you are, the greater your authority and power. And because of this structure and desire for order and predictability, documentation plays an important role along with clear policies and procedures. It is through all of these mechanisms that order, predictability and stability are maintained.

Leaders in Control Cultures are firm, assertive and confident. They expect compliance with policies and procedure and they will exercise role power. Their behavior generally suggests (to the rest of the organization) that they know what is best and that they are solely in charge and will be held accountable for both success and failure.

As a result, leaders at the top do the planning and goal-setting – though they are typically conservative and cautious in how they take an organization into the future. As part of their planning process, leaders will solicit input “from below” in the form of reports and analysis. Planning in Control Cultures is used for another purpose besides setting corporate direction – it is very often used as a vehicle to get and keep control.

Control Cultures attract people who like structure, order and predictability. The work environment is very methodical and tends to breed functional specialization. Subordinates in Control Cultures invariably know where their bosses stand and will quite often defer to them. They must in many cases because information is guarded in Control Cultures.

How These Two Cultures Relate to Agile
Agile has nothing against competency, particularly since one of the twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto is: “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility” (emphasis mine). The Competency Culture’s support of continuous improvement is likewise supported by another principle of the Agile Manifesto: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

Aspects of a Competency Culture must be included in an agile adoption, but it cannot be THE culture. There are places where the Competency Culture can step over the line. Like being overly competitive and demanding – and working people into the ground in the process. This goes against another agile principle: sustainable development – where “The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

Since competitiveness is a part of a competency culture, individualism can take precedence over teamwork and collaboration that agile teams require. Another potential problem is that Competency Cultures embrace technical mastery, which can drive people away from being generalists and working across roles to deliver what the customer needs, focusing on a narrow specialization to build solid expertise and demonstrated competence at the expense of the team’s output.

When it comes to a Control Culture – one that is all too common – and how it stacks up against agile, one famous quote comes to mind:

"Ruh-roh!" – Scooby Doo

Agile development and today’s ever-turbulent business climate is far from predictable, orderly, and stable. Organizations need to be learning, adaptive and responsive organizations, and this requires a very different way of approach work and managing people.

I could go on and on about how software development can’t be fully predictable. We can shepherd and guide development efforts, but precise predictions about delivering on time, on budget, with the expected features (and let’s throw in quality) have bedeviled a vast majority of traditional, plan-driven software projects.

Control Cultures introduce a lot of cumbersome overhead – relative to the needs of quickly understanding and adapting to rapidly changing conditions – as well as resistance to change that should keep them confined to (as William Schneider states in The Reengineering Alternative “…commodity or commodity-like enterprises and enterprises that have to do with matters of life and death (e.g., constructing bridges, medical surgery, etc.).” And even if you are a software organization contained in one these enterprises, manage your software organization differently from the rest of the company.

Harkening back to Mike Cottmeyer’s observation about transforming to agile is about being agile, a Control Culture aspiring to be agile has a lot of transforming to do. The chasm is very wide because the beliefs about what an organization and its people need to do to be successful are at polar opposites, organizationally speaking.