I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how to help my teams approach career planning through their personal and professional development goals. Many people get stuck in the idea that their career progression is determined by the configuration of the role they’re currently in and the opportunities that are available within the organisation that they work at. The problem with this is that they are then confined to how their role is structured in that organisation, and the opportunities for growth within that context only.
Don’t get me wrong. For most people, that probably is the most useful and meaningful approach for career growth, especially if they’re following a linear career path (i.e. growth within a single profession). But it’s also a good idea to broaden your horizons and think about your role and career from an industry-benchmark perspective.
Visually, it looks something like this: (notice how all self-respecting career conversations must include at least one Venn diagram …)
As you can see, the there are two things you should work on:
- expanding and improving your skillset relative to industry-level benchmarks for your profession
- using your influence and expertise to introduce a greater level of appropriate and relevant skills / practices into your organisation
In this post, I’ll focus on the first aspect – how to think about adding new skills and improving on the ones you already have relative to your profession.
Career planning – a multi-level approach
At this point, it’s a good idea to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. There are probably three levels to think about.
At the highest level, there is the Craftsman model, which generically outlines a path to mastery within a discipline.
At the most granular level, there are SMART goals, which enable the setting of trackable and achievable short-term outcomes.
The middle level is where most people get stuck. There are a few ways to break it down, but essentially what you want to do is
- Make a list of all the things that are important in your discipline or field of work
- Rate yourself against some pre-defined scales
- Identify which areas you need to improve / focus on
Again, visually this would look like
The perimeter of the outer circle indicates two things: the composition of skills and behaviours that make up a profession (what and how you should be able to do) and mastery of those things (how good you are doing them). Could this visualisation be depicted differently? Sure, but it gets complicated quickly, and remember: models are simplifications of the messy realities of life so we can get started on doing stuff instead of just thinking about it.
Putting it together
Using the three steps outlined above, here’s an overview of a possible approach.
Make a list
This is probably the most difficult aspect of the process – how do you go about creating the list? To help put structure to this, here’s a method that loosely uses the good ol’ People / Processes / Tools framework:
- Tools: what are the skills required in terms of core tools and knowledge to be really good at what you do?
- People: what are the skills required to work with, influence or manage yourself and others?
- Processes: what are the skills required to get your work done in the most effective and efficient way?
Use these three broad categories to brainstorm and research what constitutes capability in your profession. There’s no right or wrong answer here – just think of as many things as you can and add them to your list. If something feels like it might belong to more than one category, don’t worry about it and just stick it in one. Also, don’t worry about having an equal number in each category.
When you’re done, you can plot these out and create your capability baseline resembling something like this:
Once you have the list, self-assess each skill to determine your level of competence for it. You can pick any arbitrary scale, but make sure you use it consistently. It’s also generally a good idea to pick a quantitative one (or at least one that maps to a numerical measurement). For example, you might use the Craftsman scale:
- Novice: Completely new to the field or particular skill
- Apprentice: Some level of skill but requires supervision or assistance
- Journeyman: Proficiency in the skill and can work independently
- Master: High levels of expertise and ability to teach others
Once you’ve completed the rating exercise, plot the results into the original capability diagram to get a view of where you sit in the context of your profession. It could look a bit like this:
Select focus areas
Finally, have a look at the areas which have gaps between where you are and where you would like to be. It’s a good idea to pick ones which you might be able to apply in the immediate or near future and would have a positive impact to both you and others that you work with. Then, for the areas and skills you have selected, figure out what needs to be achieved in order to move up a level. Remember, this doesn’t need to be a whole level, but could just be an incremental increase in ability. For some things, moving a whole level can take years.
Once you’ve picked the areas for focus, each can now be mapped to individual SMART goals … but that’s a post for another day …
So there you have it – a relatively simple career planning framework that can get you started. Remember, this is just one of many approaches that you can take to structure your thoughts, and many of the steps can be tweaked to better fit your situation.
If you’ve got ideas that can improve this one, I’d love to hear about them (in the comments or via email).
Quantification: the act of counting and measuring that maps human sense observations and experiences into members of some set of numbers
The problem with measuring performance
A common challenge of performance assessment is measuring both the magnitude of change in a person’s performance as well as the direction of that change.
For the purpose of our discussion, here are some quick definitions:
- Direction: Whether a person is getting better or not
- Magnitude: How much that person is getting better or worse
As the old saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. If you’re trying to get someone to improve at something, you need to be able to not only determine whether they are moving forward (or backwards), but also – and equally as importantly – by how much.
Someone running up your Slope of Expectations needs to be managed very differently than someone who is strolling up … or sliding down.
This is somewhat easily solvable for objective criteria. You can measure how many times a person broke an integration build, the number of times the infrastructure under management went down unexpectedly or whether a project was delivered within acceptable time, financial and quality thresholds.
The problem becomes quite tricky, however, for measuring behavioural criteria, which are generally subjective to begin with. For example, performance plans usually contain behavioural goals, such as demonstrating leadership, or one of my personal favourites: tenacity. I mean, how do you measure leadership or tenacity?
A Performance Quantification Framework
One solution to this problem is to put a framework around how to quantify, measure and record performance indicators, both outcome-based and behavioural. The foundational attributes of such a framework are:
Using these attributes in conjunction with other frameworks (such as the Craftsman Model), you can create a valuable mechanism to provide real insights into a person’s performance. You basically take each performance indicator for a given role at a career stage, and apply the attributes against it. While this might take a little bit of time up-front to set up, it will yield great benefits when you sit down do performance appraisals later.
Lets look at each of the attributes in detail.
Does this performance indicator make sense?
Carefully assess whether the metrics being measured make sense, both in general, and in your environment.
A lot of times I’ve found that these metrics exist because they’re a remnant of the past. Someone copied them from a self-help book they were inspired by, and the metric became embedded in the performance measurement process. That, or someone in management needed labels for check-boxes on the performance appraisal form and they thought tenacity was a good candidate.
If you find this idea amusing – it’s actually not. I’ve worked in places where I’ve had to provide examples of, and justify my tenacity in annual performance reviews. I can tell you its a mind-numbing task.
Definitions and guidelines
A clear understanding of the performance indicator.
To be able to determine the magnitude of change, first you need to agree on the definition. This can be done by establishing clear guidelines and examples of what such behaviour looks like. For example, you could articulate what sort of things qualify as leadership for a given role, or what tenacity would look like.
It’s useful to get these examples publicised and validated by at least the senior members of your team. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out democratic process – part of being a good leader is to understand when autocratic decisions are appropriate. However, getting others involved allows the standards you’re setting to be externally validated and ratified.
How often the performance indicator should be measured.
Figure out how often the desired behaviours need to be demonstrated in the appraisal period. This will partly depend on the role and an individual’s stage on their career path.
For example, you can decide that you don’t expect apprentices to show a lot of leadership. This doesn’t mean they may not do so – just that you recognise that they’re young in their career and will generally follow rather than lead. If they show leadership behaviour, then by all means it should be recorded and rewarded – that’s one of the ways to identify high performers for leadership grooming and succession.
Journeymen, however, are expected to demonstrate leadership as a sign of progression. For them, you can decide what leadership means, which behaviours exemplify it, and how often you would like to record it.
The other aspect is how well someone is doing at a particular point. If someone is under-performing, then obviously you have a problem and weekly (or sometimes even daily) measurements are relevant. For high performers who only need to be appraised quarterly, it might be a fortnightly or monthly measurement.
Also remember that making and recording observations requires an overhead in terms of time and effort. This is true in all systems – human or machine – and you’ll need to make a call about how much overhead you’re prepared to bear of your and other people’s time.
The rating system for a performance indicator.
This is can be fairly straightforward or as complex as you want to make it. My advice is to use a simple linear scale from +2 to -2. The negative numbers are required to record instances where the opposite of the desired behaviour was observed. An example of such a scale would be:
||Exceeded expectations, went above and beyond
||Did not demonstrate expected behaviour
||Showed signs of behaviour contrary to expectations
||Clearly behaved against expectations
The description of each scale gradation aren’t that important, as long as the general idea is understood.
Also, remember to keep it simple. It is quite appealing to extend the scale out both ways, or to do fancy things like make it non-linear. Don’t. Keep it simple, and focus on why the framework is being used rather than the framework itself.
Why a score is given for a particular observation of a performance indicator.
When you record a score, always also record the reason that score was given. Again, this can be as short or as detailed as required. Depending on the frequency and the significance of the observation, I usually add enough detail to give me context and refresh my memory when I come back to it later.
One of the reasons for doing this is that it makes you think about the score you just gave. Sometimes I’ll record a score, write out the reasoning, and then realise that the score wasn’t really an accurate reflection of the commentary I’ve written.
Having comments is also useful when sitting down with someone to discuss their performance.You can have a more meaningful conversation when you are able to provide concrete examples of instances where you observed a behaviour that you want to encourage or discourage.
Similarly, if your environment requires it, these records are also helpful for formal human resource processes. For example, you might need to include evidence for justifying an extra performance bonus, or alternatively, to let someone go for consistent under-performance.
Add a pinch (or two) of discipline
A certain amount of discipline is required to consistently use this framework. There’s no point setting up the attributes for each performance indicator across your teams for each person if you’re not going to stick to using it.
Depending on how many people you need to do this for and how frequently, the best way to do this is to add timeslots and reminders to your calendar. All it then takes is perhaps two or three minutes – sometimes even less – to record a score and the reasoning for it.
Because your team is worth it.
Whoa! I hear you say. That sounds like a lot of work.
That’s right. No one said people management was easy. It’s a responsibility, and if you’re taking it seriously, you need to put a lot of hard work into it. Creating cohesive, engaged and high performing teams and a culture to support them requires a lot of effort. But that’s why you do it. That’s why it’s part of your craft.
I’ll write some more posts soon with examples of usage and the sorts of insights that can be extracted from using such a framework. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about any other tools and frameworks being used for quantifying performance.
The great thing about a good model is that it is extensible. The Craftsperson model, which can be used for personal or team management, can also be extended and applied to manage a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary group.
The framework can be used in a number of ways, but we’ll discuss a couple here:
- A simple overview of the group structure
- A basis for career transition conversations
Craftspeople Management Framework
As always, it’s best to discuss this with an illustration. Here’s an example of the framework depicting a technology group with multiple teams – although note that it can be used to represent any function within an organisation:
While this might look a little complicated and busy, remember that this fictitious group consists of eight teams and 31 people – a necessarily complex environment.
Let’s talk about some of the elements of the framework in a little more detail, and then pull it all together.
Overall group status
The overall Group Resource Status counter indicates how well the group is staffed. The thresholds at which you may start to get alarmed are unique to you and your organisation, but it provides an easy, at-a-glance understanding of whether a recruitment drive should be considered.
Each column represents a discrete Practice within the group. Practices can be structured in whatever way makes sense to an organisation, but represents a stand-alone area of focus and a fairly standard career path for most people.
This was discussed in some detail in previous posts. Note that Practices don’t necessarily have to mean teams. Teams can consist of individuals from multiple Practices.
Indicates how well an individual Practice is resourced:
Obviously QA needs some attention.
The colour key indicates the status of each stage within a Practice.
Gray – The stage is not required, based on the organisation or group’s current operating environment. For example, in the image above the Master stage in Program / Project Management is at “Not Required”. This could be because there are no major programs running, the program or project management is out-sourced, or perhaps even handled by other functions within the company. Similarly, the Novice stage in Software Development is set to “Not Required”, which could be because of policy to only hire slightly experienced software developers rather than fresh graduates who require lots of management attention.
Green – All is well. Nothing to see here folks. Go back to your desks and carry on.
Orange – There is no great urgency, but a need for one or more resources operating at this level has been identified. This should result in conversations about promoting within the ranks if the skills exist, or starting to engage the appropriate recruitment functions.
Red – Houston, we have a problem. A resource gap exists that is impacting current delivery of initiatives, and needs to be addressed urgently.
The number in the box for each stage. A single number indicates the resource count (or requirement, in the case of orange or red status):
Alternatively, a fraction in a box indicates an existing or upcoming resource gap. Obviously this can only be an orange or red box:
Bringing it all together – The Framework in action
Okay, so let’s pull it all together and discuss a couple of uses of the framework.
Here is the visualisation of the fictitious group again, and the overview we can glean from it:
- This is a reasonably sized group of 31 technologists.
- The group is structured into 7 distinct Practices, along with management.
- The software development function has a large representation, indicating the overall focus of activities within this group.
- There is a gap of 8 resources to get this group to its target operating effectiveness. 4 of these are required urgently.
- The Quality Assurance Practice is significantly under-resourced.
The visualisation of the framework very quickly lets us understand the group structure and focus, as well as its resourcing health.
Career Transition Conversation
Another useful thing about this framework is that it enables conversations about what career paths may be possible. In our example, let’s pick someone from the Service Delivery Practice – say, an Application Support Analyst – who is at the Apprentice level. They realise that they are starting to mature past their current stage, but there are no current positions available at the next level. They also really want to transition into Project Management:
The framework allows a meaningful conversation to take place. If they have demonstrated the appropriate attitude and aptitude, they would be first in line for the Novice Project Manager role when it is vacated, or more likely, a role would be created for them.
Management as a Practice
One final point: note that I have included Management as a Practice. Just like the rest of the (IT) crafts, management requires following a learning path and growing through the stages. It needs clearly defined levels, with behaviours and measurable metrics to determine progress. Getting promoted into management doesn’t mean you’ve made it. It means you’re a novice just getting started.