I recently came across the phrase ‘the competency trap’, an organisational learning theory that describes a person or organisation failing to change work practices quickly when the environment changes significantly (Ahuja & Tandon, 2018).

Sometimes it is difficult to grasp that change is necessary, especially when you have an excellent skill set or the organisation you work in is known for a particular speciality and all appears to be working well. How many of us fit into this category? I know I do, especially when it comes time for upgrades to IT and technology in general. If what you’re doing already works well, why change?

Disrupting current routines to implement new ones can be unpredictable and challenging; staying up to date takes money, resources and time – potentially away from the business.

I see the competency trap alive and well in small businesses. The owner has a particular skillset or specialty but is unable to afford staff or contractors, and so keeps doing things the same way in the hope of gaining business. There is rarely any spare cash flow and time is limited. Systems or skills reviews are only undertaken in the absence of success or profits; that is, only after things have started going south.

When a business owner or organisation remains too fixated on remaining niche or specialised there is a risk of habituated thinking or doing things. New or alternative technologies, routines or operational practices aren’t (or are slow to be) considered or trialled for efficiency and efficacy. It is important to embrace the fact that the success you achieve today using particular practices and strategies may not work in the (near) future. Remember that belief systems are built on shifting sands.

The Courage to Make Changes

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Based on reading the above you will either have this ‘aha’ or knowing moment that you find yourself or the business you work in, swimming in a competency trap. Moving towards change can be daunting whether you are a business owner or are a staff member.

What can be done? Firstly, take stock of areas that may require updating. Consider all areas of your business. This could be marketing, IT, equipment and software upgrades, training, leadership upskilling, sales, performance management, communications, human resources and product or service upskilling. It could also be more individualised.

Determine if it is more cost effective to employ someone or outsource to a contractor. You could also consider collaborating with another business, preferably one that understands the value of remaining current. If you have staff, review their current work duties. Is there a particular staff member who stands out due to their initiative or skills who could benefit the business as well as furthering their own personal growth and development? Consider having a staff meeting to discuss your thoughts with them.

Even with the above suggestions there will still be challenges, as that is what disruption is designed to do. It’s a matter of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and riding the rollercoaster until all settles again – until the next time.

Sana Turnock is a courage mindset facilitator, keynote speaker and sharer of courage stories. Learn how Sana can enhance your business development or next conference by clicking on this link – Courage Facilitator| Mindset Speaker| Courage Stories (courageunravelled.com)


Ahuja, G. & Tandon, V. (2018). Competency Trap. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Strategic Management. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1057/978-1-349-94848-2_385-2DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-94848-2_385-2,

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