Managing Competing Demands

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D.

The nonprofit environment today is one of shrinking resources and increasing demands.  How can nonprofit leaders manage effectively in such an increasingly challenging environment?

One answer is that it takes a “paradoxical” mindset – being open to the possibility that demands that appear to be competing actually may not be mutually exclusive.

The  Competing Values Framework (CVF), originally proposed by Robert E. Quinn and John Rohrbaugh, is built on the idea that for managers and organizations to be effective, they need to focus on both internal and external demands.  At the same time, they need to be flexible while still maintaining control.  Although we typically think of these pairs of words as being mutually exclusive, Robert E. Quinn of the University of Michigan refers to these types of pairs as “positive opposites” and argues that managers can (and indeed must) find ways to achieve goals that, at first glance, appear to be in conflict.

As a shorthand way of talking about what is needed to be effective, Quinn identified four action imperatives that, although different, are all equally important:

  • Competing: Using rational analysis to clarify goals and providing clear direction to achieve high levels of goal achievement.
  • Controlling: Measuring, documenting and routinizing procedures to create stability and continuity.
  • Collaborating: Encouraging participation and consensus building to increase involvement and commitment.
  • Creating: Engaging in political adaptation and creative problem solving to acquire and retain external resources.

Mastering all four action imperatives is essential, but there is a danger if we over-emphasize any of them.  In today’s challenging times, nonprofits need to be especially wary of going to extremes.

  • Overemphasis on Competing: Nonprofits that are overly focused on competing for resources may burn out employees and volunteers in that quest.
  • Overemphasis on Controlling: Trying to hold too tight a rein on costs may lead an organization to cut expenditures that are critical for long-term sustainability.
  • Overemphasis on Collaborating: Encouraging participation, if taken to the extreme, may slow decision making so much that important windows of opportunity are missed.
  • Overemphasis on Creating: Because funders often want to see new, innovative programs, a nonprofit might lose focus on its core operations.

It is reasonable for individuals who feel more comfortable with the skills associated with one of the four action imperatives to play to their strengths and focus on that one area. If that results in managers or nonprofits neglecting the other three action imperatives, then what was initially a strength may become a weakness that undermines overall effectiveness.


Quinn, R. E. (1988).  Beyond Rational Management:  Mastering the Paradoxes and Competing Demands of High Performance.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Quinn, R. E., Faerman, S. R., Thompson, M. P., McGrath, M. R., and St. Clair, L. (2011). Becoming a Master Manager: A Competing Values Approach, 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Quinn, R. E. and Rohrbaugh, J. (1983).  A spatial model of effectiveness criteria:  Towards a competing values approach to organizational analysis.  Management Science, 29(3): 363-377.

Tschirhart, M. (with L. St. Clair). (2012).  Transforming, Staying the Course, or Perishing? Leading Organizational Change in Third Sector Organizations.  Paper prepared for presentation at Adapt or Perish? Managing Change in the Third Sector, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, June 25, 2012.

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D., is a retired management professor and co-author of Becoming a Master Manager, now in its fifth edition.

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