Scope Creep in Strategic Initiatives: How to Recognize It and Avoid It

Includes Excludes Table Strategic Initiative Program ManagementI frequently use the Includes-Excludes Table as a tool for clarifying the scope of a strategic initiative and its projects. The Includes-Excludes Table is a simple two-column table with the word “in” placed at the top of the left column and “out” at the top of the right column. The nearby graphic shows a simple example that you can use as a model.

The value of this tool/technique is that is forces you to think more explicitly about defining the initiative and the projects that are in it. This quote from Chris Peters of Microsoft emphasizes the importance of excluding items from the scope:  “There can be good and bad vision statements. A good statement tells you what’s not in the product; a bad vision statement implies everything is in the product. In order to give you guidance on what’s in and out, you have to explain what the thing isn’t. And too often marketing will decide that it’s best if everything’s in… The hard part is figuring out what not to do. (Microsoft Secrets, Page 210).”  For emphasis,

 A good vision statement tells what is not in the scope

Poorly-Defined Strategic Initiatives are Most Subject to Scope Creep

It is important to consider and list are related concepts on the row of the table.  For a simple example, see the nearby graphic that distinguishes that apples, dogs, and Simon are in the scope; whereas, oranges, cats, and Garfunkel are not in the scope.

Scope is Partitioning into In and Out - Strategic InitiativesNote on the left side of the table, I categorized them as fruit, pets, and musicians. This is important, as we only get a good scope by understanding that the more abstract category (say, fruit) gives us a framework to understand structural and functional differences (apples have thinner skins than oranges).

For another example, if we are trying to improve performance of our employees, we need to understand that performance involves learning knowledge and skill (perhaps classroom training is in scope) as well as the motivation (perhaps rewards are out of scope). As I discussed in this article, performance improvement must be considered holistically, and not just a classroom training issue.

Now notice the line that separates the in from the out. The word partitioning is a good synonym for the word scope, as it implies that there is a conscious choice to categorize concepts. The word scope infers “partitioning” of things that are in and out of consideration. Failing to address project boundaries can cause all sorts of pain later in the implementation of the project.

Scope creep is a frequently-heard complaint.  The Includes-Excludes Table helps us to visualize scope creep as something that was determined to be “out” now has crept over the line to become “in.”  Returning to the nearby graphic, imagine that oranges are no longer out of consideration, they have moved to the in column. This redefinition of scope might change the direction of the strategic initiative in terms of team makeup, timing of benefits delivery, stakeholder communications, and so forth.

The advice for the strategic initiative leader is straightforward: pay attention to the partitioning of in and out. Don’t let something that is out cross the line unless you understand the impacts on the governance of the program.

Strategy Involves Nuance

I selected the simple examples of apples, dogs, and Simon to help the reader understand the technique of the Includes-Excludes List.

Now, let’s examine a more-nuanced example involving organizational strategy.  Let’s imagine that an entrepreneur wants to develop a highly-focused marketing strategy of selling pet food and supplies. Knowing that there are many kinds of pets – and substantial competition in this space – she decides that she will sell products to dog owners and take a pass on owners of cats and other pet types.  She might even decide to specialize within the dog market, maybe focusing on one breed of dogs or only on smaller purse-sized dogs.  Each of these decisions is strategic in that the strategist’s choices eliminate options and force more specialization.

Looking at this another way, the question a strategist considers is this: “How do I understand the characteristics of this element (size of dogs, breed, etc.) in such a way that I can manipulate the description in some way as to define what something isn’t?”  This forces a more granular understanding of the situation and the choices being made, and leads to more focus (which is a desirable characteristic of strategy).

This process of describing the in and out, and making choices, encourages the strategist to think about their business model in a more complete and logical way.

How to Reduce Scope Ambiguity & Gain a More Strategic Perspective

The word scope is ambiguous; experience shows that even highly experienced and trained professionals cannot agree on its meaning.  My solution is to always use modifier with the word scope, and my preferred modifiers result in the phrases Problem Scope, Product Scope, and Work Scope.  Thus, there are three kinds of scope:

  • Problem scope refers to the problems or opportunities that we are going to address and contrasts them with the ones we are not going to address.
  • Product scope refers to the included features and functionality of a proposed solution, contrasted with features and functionality that will not be provided.
  • Work scope refers to the work effort that will be defined, planned, and executed with the goal of producing a product that resolves the problem.  Project managers would typically list this on the well know tool of a work breakdown structure.

Diagnosis of the Strategic Context is Fundamental to Strategy Development

We all have heard the saying that a problem well defined is a problem half solved. Yet, my experience with strategic initiatives shows that people spend too-little time in diagnosis of the situation, and relatively too-much time in arguing over solutions.

The Includes-Excludes Table can help you stay focused on root causes and core strategic problems.  They key is to maintain a focus on the problem scope, and avoid the tendency to start designing solutions and implementing them.  What are the problems you want to consider?  What are the related problems that you don’t want to consider?

This is strategy work: situational diagnosis and search for opportunity.

Since organizations are complex, it is hard to partition initiatives crisply.  I recommend starting with a strategic diagnosis: what is the context and what are the performance gaps?  What issues and perceptions are going to affect executive and stakeholder consensus?

There is an old saying, “any fool can add, it takes a genius to subtract.”  Do you agree that we need to make the word scope less ambiguous, and work to grasp the strategic nuance?

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Achieve, Preserve, Avoid: Another Nifty Technique for Gaining Strategic Perspective

Achieve Preserve AvoidStrategy is inherently ambiguous, with goals and expectations differing depending upon the stakeholder. Because people tend to feel uncomfortable with ambiguity, a leader needs to clear the fog; a process that is best called gaining perspective. Before the leader can help others, s/he needs to clarify their her/his own view of the rewards and the risks. This article identifies three useful questions for gaining perspective*: What do I want to achieve? What do I want to preserve? What do I want to avoid? The following story illustrates their application.

The New VP of Engineering’s Challenge

Let’s examine a strategic initiative at a mid-sized, closely-held manufacturer. A few words about company politics are necessary to establish the context for use of the three achieve-preserve-avoid questions.

David was the co-sponsor to the strategic initiative intended to improve new product development productivity. David saw this strategic initiative as an opportunity to assure the company’s growth and reputation as an innovator. David’s view (and I agreed with him) was that a holistic view – including a better and more proactive “voice of the customer” – would be beneficial. Also relevant: David was newly-promoted to the position of VP of Engineering.

The other co-sponsor was Frank, the VP of Sales, who had held the position for many years. Frank saw this strategic initiative as a problem to be solved: how do we fix things so that the company can respond to requests quicker and more effectively. He wanted the rest of the company to be more responsive to customer requirements, as presented by the sales department.

David asked me and Walter, a capable and trusted manager, to come to his office to help him think through the challenges. I moved to his white board and wrote the question, “What do we want to Achieve?” on the left side. I wrote, “What do we want to Preserve?” in the center and “What do we want to Avoid?” on the right side. I then gave them a set of sticky notes and instructed them to write out answers on sticky notes and post underneath the appropriate question.  They went to work, and within 15 minutes they had posted several dozen answers.

We next started to look for conceptual relationships between the ideas written on the stickies. We moved the stickies around to show affinity relationships. This analysis sparked insightful discussions on benefits, risks, metrics, and stakeholder imperatives.

As we neared completion, I could see David’s confidence grow. The case for better business performance was there; we wanted to achieve that. We wanted to preserve friendly working relationships with the co-sponsor and other influencers.  We wanted to avoid waste and rework, and we wanted to avoid missing out on the opportunities.

As I left the meeting, David thanked me for my help and shared that he was an elder in his church, and he would introduce the technique to their next strategic planning meeting.

The Strategic Initiative Delivers Benefits

Here is what happened with the strategic initiative. David was steadily able to deliver results and build a coalition of other managers to support the new approach. With David’s and Walter’s leadership the innovation process has shown steady progress, contributing to improved financial performance. However, David’s steady leadership eventually brought the CEO into a fuller appreciation of the benefits of the strategic initiative and the CEO became more willing to champion it.

Ideally, I would have through the same process with Frank.  Frank never had much passion for anything other than his Sales functional perspective, so he withdrew from the role of co-sponsor.  Earlier in the strategic initiative, Frank was opposed to many of David’s ideas and conflict loomed. Frank’s opposition was neutralized by David and Walter’s careful advocacy of the benefits.

From What is Best for Me to What is Best for All of Us

The first answers to the questions are typically self-centered, which is to be expected in a culture that is individualistic and competitive. A leader has to understand their own values and priorities before they can effectively lead others.

Next, we introduce and discuss the group’s perspective, “What is best for all of us?” Usually, the collective answer points towards important organizational performance gaps and the need for consensus to get the gaps closed.

Have can you apply these three questions and gain better perspective for your strategic initiative?

* I learned these three questions from John Arnold’s advice to new executives in his 1981 book, Shooting the Executive Rapids. Executives often parachute into high-pressure, high visibility situations where they need to close a performance gap or otherwise make significant changes; in other words, executives often come into organizations to launch or lead strategic initiatives.

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Three Ideas for Motivating Executive Stakeholders

English: 2009 Black Tie Dinner Distribution - ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider this situation: you are a leading a strategic initiative and you have identified a stakeholder who has the potential to add her influence to it.

This stakeholder is an executive who has not engaged deeply to this point: “It isn’t on her radar.” Where might you find some ideas for appealing to that executive?

One place to look is charitable organizations. The effective ones design their appeals to secure the support of business executives who may not have the economic rationale to support the charity. These appeals tap into the inner drives of people.

1. People Desire to Part of Something Bigger

Everyone feels lonely at some point. Most people find the draw to be part of a larger group a powerful motivator.

To make this idea work, the leader needs to think expansively. Often it is helpful to throw in a nod to history or heritage.

2. People Desire to be of Service to Others

People find some value and redemption in giving to their community. Altruism can be a powerful motivator.

3. People Desire Status and Appreciate Recognition

Charitable organizations throw banquets for their contributors and armies provide their soldiers with ribbons.

Consider how you can give a little extra attention or visibility, recognize and honor their participation and support, and give them the VIP treatment.


I was able to increase support for a strategic initiative for two key managers by extending an invitation to them to join me at a professional conference. I even arranged for them to participate in panel discussion.  They returned from the conference energized.

  • They previously had not realized that they were experiencing the problems that many of their peers faced. They saw that they could become a part of a larger professional community of like-minded people (Factor 1).
  • They were able to share their learnings with others (Factor 2).
  • They received from appreciation from many, and returned with useful tools, contacts, and energy (Factor 3).

 How could you use these factors?

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Strategic Leadership is “Replacing Old Stories with New Stories”

Renew Blue Timeline BBY founding to present A straightforward strategic initiative technique is this: drawing an organizational timeline, starting with the founding of the organization and continuing to the present. Interspersed along the timeline are important events that have influenced the present condition. I call these important events turning points, and they often require some digging and strategic thought to identify and describe them.  As any student of history will tell you, sometimes small events and actions have lasting impact.

By definition, strategic initiatives are transformational. The current initiatives should be shown on this timeline, as they represent a turning point that will have future consequences.

Before continuing, please consider this list of five key points that support the ideas in this article:

  • Strategic initiatives close a performance gap
  • Strategy involves conversation between stakeholders
  • Strategic initiatives are responses to a problem or opportunity
  • The portfolio of strategic initiatives are few in number
  • Strategic initiatives are a story in the organization’s longer narrative arc. This perspective makes it easier to invoke the power of story and role of Chief Story Teller. Stories gain value because they illustrate a tension between forces, such as prevailing over a competitor, or solving a difficult problem.

An Example

Here is an example of a timeline for Best Buy (BBY), starting with its founding and ending at the announcement of its Renew Blue strategic initiative in November 2012. I created the nearby timeline based on data available on Wikipedia and BBY’s web site.

Many of the noted items on the timeline are turning points. For example, a tornado destroys a store.  We can imagine a BBY manager asking, “What should we do?” and someone saying, “Let’s have a sale can call it a best buy.”  The tension is in the question and its resolution is in the answer.  Do you see how that makes a story more interesting and compelling AND it alters the company’s narrative arc?

Now, let’s look at the Renew Blue strategic initiative as a turning point.  As I have detailed in this article, BBY has to face some daunting challenges in new marketplace realities and the competition from

“Future Cast” The Timeline – Applying Strategic Thinking within the Strategic Initiative

So far, I have used the timeline in the sense of telling retrospective stories that look back into history. Since strategy is a response to a future that hasn’t happened yet, we need to spend some energy on looking into the future. To do this, I take the timeline and draw a set of arrows (typically, about 15 years). See the nearby graphic for an example of this applied to Renew Blue.

Renew Blue Future CastingFinally, the tasks of leadership involve challenging people to create a preferred future. BBY is unlikely to return to its industry leadership position simply by shrinking its footprint and training its blue shirt sales force.  Instead, BBY future may lie in a new business model that would be unrecognizable as a big box retailer.  Only time will tell if BBY can find a fit of its business model with its environment.

No one knows what BBY’s future might be, but I do know that answering these questions would stimulate the creation of an effective strategy:

What present problems and opportunities are relevant to our future? What are the scenarios of the future? Where (and over whom) will we find advantage? What are the insights?

My advice to any strategic initiative addressing organizational renewal is this: despite all of the high pressure to execute the program’s work, also find time for encouraging strategic thinking. Foster alertness for opportunity; and know that this opportunity will be hidden in weak signals someplace in the periphery of the organization. Be prepared to respond when that opportunity does arrive.

Strategy Involves “Replacing Old Stories with New Stories”

In this article, I explained strategy is a conversation between stakeholders. More specifically, I wrote that a micro definition of strategy is that it is a set of actions based on a set of choices. Strategy – and by extension strategic initiatives – often involves controversial judgments and actions stemming from the simple reason that there are many stakeholders, and each stakeholder holds a unique perspective of the situation. Consider that people have different views of history that influence their current mental model. Part of the job of leadership is to foster some common thinking and values on the past as a precursor to agreeing on a strategy.

Finally, consider we can expand the micro definition of “strategy as conversation” to this: strategy is a narrative of an organization with an emphasis on prospective stories. In a more practical sense, this means that the job of leaders is to replace old stories with new stories.

Do you agree that a current strategic initiative could be seen as an episode of an organization’s history, with a turning point?

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Accountability is the Willingness to Have Your Performance Measured

Accountability defined - the ability to have your performance measuredAccountability is frequently cited as a strategic initiative success factor. As Kaplan and Norton (authors of the Balanced Score Card and Execution Premium) say, “without clear responsibility and accountability, execution programs will go nowhere.”

In the abstract, “assigning accountability” or to “holding people accountable” seems commonsense. I often ask people in my seminars, “Is accountability is a good thing or a bad thing?” Usually people say that it is a good thing (although the enthusiasm for that conclusion is weak).  In practice, accountability commonly equates to blame assignment and punishment.

In my experience, accountability is a reflection of the organization’s culture.  It seems to be a positive attribute when the culture values transparency about roles, responsibilities, and promises. It also seems to be more valued and productive when the organization has a strong performance appraisal system for individuals.

How to Instill Accountability in Your Strategic Initiative

Strategic initiatives reflect and are constrained by the culture, but a leader and create a “micro-culture” for the team. With that idea in mind, I offer this definition,

Accountability is the willingness to have your performance measured.

The discipline of accounting is perhaps the most well-developed and highly institutionalized function in any large organization.  Its standards and principles provide simplicity and reassurance that the organization can define and measure performance. It is from this idea of accounting that we derive the word accountability. Since accounting is the practice of measurement, this definition of accountability is consistent and sensible. It is neutral with respect to punishment.

Consider these practical implications:

  • Performance outcomes must be known.  I have previously writing about performance gaps, vision, and metrics.  The trick is to take the initiative’s outcomes and to create metrics for the individual.
  • Consequences should be discussed.  Most companies view strategic initiatives as an element on the career path. It is better to make the consequences (both good and bad) clear to individuals.
  • Transparency is valued in the initiative.  We want team members to surface risks and issues.
  • Sponsor and program roles become clearer.
  • Integrity becomes thought of as the alignment of thought, words, and actions.
  • Trust is improved.

Another Suggestion

I recommend that organizations drop the phrase “hold people accountable” from their discussions. Think about it this way: How would you react if someone with coercive power said to you, “I’m going to hold you hostage.”  You would feel threatened and defensive. There are better ways to motivate people.

Clarifying Responsibility versus Accountability

Responsibility is the “ability to make a response” and is a choice that individuals make. A person can choose to respond, or not.  Accountability now becomes a more neutral concept: a person chooses to be part of a strategic initiative and that person further chooses to have his/her performance measured.

Accountability is an attribute of organizational culture related to integrity and transparency. Do you agree?

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Three Tips for Leading Strategic Alliances

strategic alliances 3 tipsStrategic alliances are a growing subset of strategic initiatives. The evidence for that growth includes many advertisements for talent. For one example, the Gateway Division of Acer is recruiting for a Program Manager of Global Strategic Alliances. The program involves maximizing revenue by working with partners on a merchandising roadmap. Another example involves Kaminario’s Director of Strategic Alliances who will implement joint technology and business initiatives across multiple strategic alliances. The work will include driving new product development between the alliances and go-to-market programs.

Strategic Alliance is a relationship between two or more parties where they collaborate to capture an opportunity or extend their reach into complementary areas.  The entities maintain their independence, so the term strategic alliance does not refer to mergers and acquisitions. For example, as part of its Renew Blue strategic initiative, the retailer Best Buy has partnered with Samsung to open the Samsung Experience making it possible for shoppers to get specialized attention on Samsung products.

The life cycle of a strategic alliance involves several phases: plan the alliance, negotiate the terms, invest in the alliance, operate the alliance to realize benefits, and restructuring the alliance (includes termination).  Especially for the early parts of the lifecyle we see a role for strategic initiatives and program management:

  • The setup of a strategic alliance meets the tests of the definition of a strategic alliance: they span boundaries (markets, organizational structures, product lines, technologies), provide benefits to strategic stakeholders (are a pooling of risk and rewards), and transform the organization.
  • Program management is a tool for aligning efforts with strategies.  The 5 BARED domains are typically present: benefits realization, strategic alignment, road mapping, stakeholder engagement, and decision governance.

I have participated in many strategic alliances, both as a leader and as a consultant. Here are three tips that will increase the probability of meeting your goals.

Tip #1 – Meet in Person, Frequently

Strategic alliances are tricky because the underlying organizational cultures can be quite different, and you need to be sensitive to those differences. It should surprise no one that culture can undo the best of strategic intentions. Unlike corporate acquisitions, there is not going to be a winning culture. In my experience, there is no substitute for traveling to the alliance partner’s facilities and meeting with your counterparts.  I recall well the differences that I experience when representing my employer, a NYSE-traded fast growing company that was partnering with a much larger, older, private company.  Our aggressiveness was not a good fit with their conservatism, but we developed personal relationships that helped us recognize the mitigate friction.

It’s commonsense leadership: be respectful of others but open to discussing differences and be prepared to adapt to maintain harmony that supports the strategic aims.

Tip #2 – Find and Articulate Strategic Insights

Often strategic alliances come about by top-level executives who meet and say…. “It would be a good idea to get together.” The next thing you know, you’ve been tapped on the shoulder to lead this strategic initiative.

Where’s the strategic insight?  Often there isn’t one readily evident.  Further, few executives would want to have their judgment challenged by implying that strategic insights are missing.

While this is a cause for concern, it is not a deal breaker. My best advice is to activate your strategic thinking capabilities and encourage the same on your counterparts. I have written extensively about how to find insights and opportunities in the linked articles. Too, I have gotten good results from identifying customers and probing for value propositions. A great question is what is interesting about this?

Tip #3 – Explicitly discuss risks, risk tolerances and risk response strategies

If you’ve stayed with me to this point, you can see that strategic alliances involve a lot of complexity and potential for things to go wrong.  One of the best things that you can do is to schedule a meeting where the parties can freely identify, analyze, and plan responses to risk.  I call it a risk clinic, and it is best done with the help of a facilitator. You might want to consider the techniques of the “What about” list and prospective hindsight (see the links for the how-to details).  You want to find out the risk tolerances of the parties: what kinds of threats are most bothersome and how much of that risk can they tolerate. For example, some organizations will never sacrifice quality to meet a launch date, while other organizations routinely de-scope in order to hit the date.

Interestingly, the discussion of risk tends to build trust in the relationship. It gets the concerns out into the open, and stimulates some creating conversation. The discussion of the four response strategies for threats also creates a sense of confidence, empowerment, and determination in the alliance team members (the four threat response strategies are avoidance, mitigation, transfer, and acceptance/contingency).

Also, the discussion of risk makes it naturally easy to build an opportunity recognition framework into the discussion.

Strategic alliances offer many opportunities for growth. They are strategic initiatives with unique complexity and issues. In addition to the three tips, what other advice do you have?

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Don’t Ask About Deadlines and Due Dates

Civil War drawing of the Dead Line

Many project managers ask this question early in any discussion, “What is the dead line?” It is sensible habit, as time helps us to establish priorities and logically schedule activities.

However, I would NOT ask that question for a strategic initiative. As I’ll explain, dead lines are an idiomatic phrase and often simply hollow rhetoric. More importantly, I’ll describe a superior approach.

Dead Line is an Idiomatic Phrase

On a recent strategic initiative, a person translated the phrase dead line as “Death Line” and took it as a literal idea (not understanding that it is an idiomatic figure of speech.) He was puzzled why a software project involved death! Because strategic initiatives often cross national and cultural boundaries, we have to be especially careful about use of the English language.

This brings up an interesting bit of trivia for you history buffs. The word deadline entered the American lexicon in 1864 during its Civil War. If a prisoner crossed the deadline they were shot dead, no questions asked. Now THAT’s a dead line.

Take a look at the graphic on this page and notice the stakes in this drawing: that is the deadline.  The graphic is from the book, The Capture, The Prison Pen, and the Escape, by Captain William Worcester Glazier, published in 1870.  Thanks to John Bodner of Monroe, Michigan USA for sharing this with me.

The Dead Line is a Hollow Rhetorical Phrase

Many times people are told there are severe consequences of not meeting dates, or at least this is implied.  However, most people recognize the truth of this story:

A project team worked heroically – late nights and weekends – to meet a date for its deliverable. The submitted the deliverable, and nothing was done with it; it literally sat on the executive’s desk.  I had the opportunity to ask the executive about the imposed due date. This was his answer, “Oh, that date is my wife’s birthday.  I needed a date that I could remember.”  He was unaware of the efforts of the team to meet his arbitrary date.

So note this important learning,

most projects have due dates and not deadlines.

A Better Way to Discover Timing Expectations

Here is how an IT consulting company gained a rethinking about time. The company had a typical practice: its direct sales force would ask, “What the due date?” The customer would give an answer and the sales person would that date back to the project staff. Not surprisingly, the sales person explained that the client immediate results. However, the resources were not available and often the discussions became adversarial.

The strategic initiative involved building a better relationship with clients. Part of the effort included a training to think about dates and urgency differently, focused on approaching the client with a more collaborative perspective, asking these three questions:

  • What are your preferences for timing?  This is a good question that sets stakeholder expectations. The word preference suggests some degree of tradeoff. This helps to avoid giving the customer a false promise.
  • What is your sense of urgency?  This question is to determine how mission critical the project is to them to help us plan accordingly, if necessary, versus making any assumptions ourselves.
  • If there is a due date, how did you arrive at the due date?  This question helps to establish the strategic context from the client perspective.

These questions – along with probing for benefits – allowed the IT Company to gain a better working relationship with its clients.

Remember: Time is But One of Many Tradeoffs

I’m all for having a sense of urgency, as people do pay attention to the calendar and increase work efforts as near commitment dates. However, we need to remember that there are a number of variables that influence the delivery date. These variables include the following: amount and quality of resources applied, risk, decision quality, amount of functionality in the solution, performance of the solution. It is better to think of a project (or a program) as a design, where the optimal design involves tradeoffs.

The better approach is to start with the strategic objectives, identify your contributors, build buy in and understanding, and then gradually introduce the always-important subject of timing. For a deeper understanding of how to structure the roadmap, see this article on the Four Driving Questions for Strategic Initiatives.

Do you agree that it is better to gently probe about timing expectations? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

[Readers: I now have a new blog dedicated to strategic and strong-minded thinking competency. See:]

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