Managing paradoxes – The Competing Values leadership framework

Organizations today are more and more complex and it is very challenging indeed for managers to understand how to deal with this complexity in an effective way. Quite often, managers are torn between what would seem to be “competing” and even “conflicting” requests pulling them in opposite directions simultaneously. At the same time, their surroundings seem more and more complex, inhibiting effective action. They understand that simplicity is required but such simplicity would seem hard to reach.

The “Competing Values” leadership Framework, first conceived at the University of Michigan business school is a very simple leadership model which provides managers and team members alike with a very simple and coherent tool, allowing all  to “see” through the apparent complexity of their organizations to the underlying simplicity driving their business, thereby offering an insight into the apparently contradictory but inevitably positive and complimentary  tensions and constraints acting on them, tensions that can be harnessed to work effectively and positively in a constructive way.

How does the “Competing Values” leadership Framework work?

As Jeff deGraff explains in the Video below, the “Competing Values” model looks at two positive tensions found in all organizations:

Tension 1: On a vertical axis, there is a necessary tension between the organization/person seeking “flexibility” and the organization/person seeking “stability“;

Tension 2: On a horizontal axis, there is a necessary  tension between the “internally facing” organization/person and the “externally” facing organization/person.

Capture d’écran 2016-01-31 à 17.02.28

These two positive tensions create 4 specific profiles  that occur at the individual level, the organizational level and of course at the outcome level.

  • Profile 1: the “Create” profile. In the top right quadrant, the “Create” profile seeks high flexibility and is focused on the external world. When we think of this profile, we think of the person who likes to “do things first“, the “innovator“, “pioneer“, “inventor“, the “artist“, the “visionary“. Steve Jobs would be a good example of this “Create” profile. The upside of this profile is that he/she is most likely to come up with the right solution. The downside, there is a lot of risk involved. Organizations with a “Create” profile run high risk and rely on radical innovation to progress quickly. All will remember the ad campaign run by Apple which even had as a banner “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” which illustrates the “rebel” nature of the “Create” profile.

  • Profile 2: The “Control” profile. Opposite in the bottom left quadrant, is the internal, stability focused profile. This profile seeks to “do things right” through robust processes, procedures and lots of metrics. This is a profile operating in a highly complex environment requiring large amounts of data with a lot of scalability where risk and failure is not an option (engineers, surgeons, doctors, pilots,…). Such organizations seek incremental innovation with little risk and seek to avoid radical transformation at all costs.

The interplay of these two profiles “Create versus Control” creates a tension around innovation and “how much” innovation a company needs.

  • Profile 3: The “Competitor” profile. In the bottom right quadrant, we have the individuals/organizations that are “externally and stability” focused and who seek to “do things fast“. These profiles are strongly goal oriented and seek to win “at all costs“. These profiles are focused very short-term. The down-side of this group is that they are not very good at building sustainability because their sole concern is “winning the game today“.
  • Profile 4: The “Collaborator” profile. In the top left quadrant is the Collaborator profile who is inwardly and flexibility focused, who wants to do “things together that last” and is held together by very strong values that he/she is trying to instill in the organizations he/she serves. These profiles are great at building “sustainable, long-term” organizations but they don’t always move so fast (relatively speaking) as they are focused on relationship building which necessarily takes time.

The interplay of these two opposing profiles “Competitor versus Collaborator” creates a second tension in any organization concerning “How fast the organization should innovate”. Do we go really fast to obtain the short-term goals or do we go a little less fast so that we can develop the culture and competencies that will make the organization more sustainable in the long term?

Jeff deGraff reminds us that there are 3 key points to be remembered when applying the “Competing Values” framework to any organization:

  1. Any organization is only as good as the “weakest” quadrant. To develop, grow and succeed, you need all 4 quadrants to play an integral part. For example, if we are great at the “Create” quadrant but not great at the “Control” quadrant, we won’t be able to take that radical new idea and turn it into a really big idea that will work everywhere because we won’t be systematic enough. So all 4 quadrants are necessary and they have to work in sync.
  2. We must build a management “portfolio” because one style of management won’t work everywhere. We may start a project in the “Compete” mode with a strongly goal focused project manager but at a certain moment in time, we may want to transition to a “cooperator” profile if we want to make the project sustainable in the long term.
  3. Most importantly, “how we create” is “what we create”. In other words, define your processes to the outcome you expect. If you want a radical new idea, select a “Create” profile and not a “Control” profile, pick the right kind of processes which encourage a “radical” outcome and don’t burden the project with excessive processes and procedures which will inhibit action and the generation of a radical outcome expected.

To summarize, as Jeff de Graff points out, rather than being counter productive and to be eliminated at all costs, the tensions generated by the interplay and competition of these four profiles : “Create versus Control” and “Compete versus Cooperate”  through “constructive conflict” can produce the hybrids and types of innovations today’s complex organizations are looking for.

Above all, as Jeff de Graff’s fellow academics Cameron and Quinn point out in their book entitled “Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture” (2011), “the highest-performing leaders…have developed capabilities and skills that allow them to succeed in each of the four quadrants. That is, they are self-contradictory, behaviorally complex leaders in the sense that they can be simultaneously hard and soft, entrepreneurial and controlled….Managerial effectiveness is inherently tied to paradoxical attributes, just as organizational effectiveness is. Effective managers and effective organizations are paradoxical! 

Food for thought!

Check out  Jeff de Graff’s website for more information on the Competing Values framework at Competing Values Leadership










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