Sunday 17 December 2017

Impersonal Development

It is a rare and privileged situation to find oneself in when the values that the company that you work for promote, and even sell, are consistent with things that you yourself feel passionate about. Fortunately for me this is just the situation that I find myself in when it comes to personal development. Working for a company that promotes employee engagement and intrinsic motivation is a natural home for someone like me who believes that giving people rewarding jobs is the most important thing that a company typically does.

Losing the personal touch

A couple of years ago I underwent the strange experience of having the small company that I knew and loved taken over by a major multinational. One of the requirements of that acquisition was that we move to adopt the personal development structure that was a standard for that enterprise. In summary this involved

  • Identifying the core competencies that were appropriate for each role (at the time I looked after testing, support and technical authoring)
  • Scoring each person against each of these competencies based on a supposedly objective scoring structure

This approach ran contrary to the one that I'd adopted up to that point and it took some effort to come up with a way of meeting the requirements without sacrificing the principles that I had been working to up to that point.

But it was still a sacrifice.

Personal, Really?

I don't know anyone the same as me. I know many people with similar skills in certain areas, better in some, less capable in others. Inevitably when compared to any individuals we find that they have deep expertise in some things at which we would consider ourselves complete novices, even when we are involved in very similar roles. It has always seemed rather unnatural to me then that, in looking at personal development so many organisations look to measure people based on a set of 'core competencies' for that role, and nothing else. My natural inclination for personal development is that it should be a bit more … well … personal.

Prior to the acquisition I had taken an 'individual first' approach to personal development. I would work with each member of my team to identify what their personal strengths were, what areas they needed to work on and, most importantly, what their personal goals and aspirations were. Rather than treating each individual as a plug-in resource to mould to a pre-defined shape determined by the role they were employed in, I would look to understand the unique qualities that each person brought to the organisation and how we could best make use of those to make their job and our work as rewarding and productive as possible.

I see this as nothing more than common sense. People are not pluggable resources that are swappable in and out of equivalent positions. Even in the same role different people will adopt different approaches with different outcomes influenced by their strengths, weaknesses, proclivities and biases. This should be something we celebrate and encourage as it promotes diversity and innovation, rather than seeing people's uniqueness as corners that need to be rounded to fit the mould that we have predefined for them.

A new opportunity

I've a painful habit of landing myself responsibilities by opening my big mouth. This is exactly what happened recently at my current company River when looking at personal development. In response to a suggested approach to personal development based on rating people against core competencies I pushed back, warning of the dangers of the 'cookie cutter' approaches I'd seen before and instead ensure we built something oriented around individuals. Somewhat inevitably my intention of proffering an opinion ended up with my being volunteered to help define an approach.

The approach I came up with was oriented around two main principles

  • Capabilities vs Skills
  • Mentors and Coaches

Capabilities over Skills

In terms of terminology I distinguished between capabilities and skills. It seems a little pedantic to differentiate but there's solid reasoning behind it. A person can have skills however if they are not able to apply them to good effect, or share them with others, then they aren't capabilities that benefit others in the business. Someone might be a brilliant coder but if they don't help to coach others and the overall quality of their team code is poor then they are not applying that skill as a strong capability. We wanted to focus not only on building skills, but also in sharing with others where deep skills exist within the business.

To help with defining the level of someone's capability I adopted an interpreted version of the Shu-Ha-Ri learning concept to allow people to assess their stage of learning. The idea is well covered elsewhere such as here by Martin Fowler, so I won't go into details here. In simple terms the concept considers three different stages of learning.

  • Shu - where someone is learning precisely based on one teacher or source of learning ('Learning from others' in our personal development template)
  • Ha - where the student has mastered the basics and extends their learning to assimilate from other sources ('Self sufficient')
  • Ri - where the student is now learning based on their own mastery and practice to innovate on what they have previously learned ('Throw away the rulebook')

I felt that these definitions could help to identity appropriate activities around that capability, for example whether to focus more on learning from others or to consider sharing learning and coaching others as more of a priority.

Mentors and Coaches

The terms mentor and coach are sometimes used interchangeably. The terms can have different meanings in different contexts, however for the purposes of defining a structure for personal development I wanted to clearly differentiate between these roles.

  • Mentors - there is some confusion as to the role of a mentor. I've seen experience reports of organisation where drives to encourage mentoring faltered as they restricted the mentoring relationship to a task based collaboration, failing to promote the one-to-one ongoing relationship that for me is fundamental in a mentoring role. For the purposes of personal development I defined Mentoring as being about developing someone as a whole, looking at their strengths and weakness and understanding their motivations to guide not only their ability for their current role but also the needs of both themselves and the company in the future. Through mentoring we get an understanding of what motivates people and can see opportunities for people to grow themselves and add value, potentially outside their current role.
  • Coaches - coaching in our definition is focussed on building capabilities in specific areas. The role of a coach is to help people to learn or improve in a certain capability. This could be over a very short duration, such as running a training session or workshop, it could be providing advice on resources to improve someone's learning, or it could be a period of longer duration coaching to build someones expertise. One of the goals of the mentor is to identify capabilities that the mentored individual wants to develop and to facilitate the appropriate coaching arrangements to support them.

Showing that we care

Essentially when asking people to engage with their work we are asking them to care. Care, however, is usually reciprocal - more likely to be given when received. Care cannot come from a company, which is after all little more than a collection of assets and contacts, it must come from the people within it. A mentoring arrangement is a great way to engender a relationship based on care and built around personal development that is genuinely focused on each unique person.

I find it rather distasteful when companies treat employees as if they are resources to be moulded to the shape required to fill a predefined gap in that company. I believe that people engage best in teams of they feel that they are making a strong and unique contribution to the work of that team. This isn't just visible in the workplace. From the Greek Gods through Robin Hood's merry men to the 'A-Team', our cultural heritage celebrates variety and the opportunity for unique contribution in team working. Treating everyone in the same role as delivering a comparable, even quantifiable, skills takes away that opportunity. As I have written previously, both in this guest post on Rob Lambert's blog, and in More Agile Testing by Lisa Crisping and Janet Gregory, by combining 'T-shaped' people who possess both solid broad skills and unique deep skills, it is possible to create powerful 'Square-shaped' teams. Such teams comprise a strong general ability with a much greater depth of expertise in a variety of capabilities than a team of carbon-copy 'resources' could offer. Some larger organisations might argue that a more personal approach is only possible in smaller companies, however I know people who've taken similar approaches in larger companies, moving individuals within the business to take on tasks that better fit with their capabilities and interests, with very positive results.

Another factor to consider when developing individuals that I feel should not be ignored is market value. Too often companies focus on people's value within organisations and don't consider their market value and developing their CV and public profile. This is naive - even if you as an employer aren't considering someone's market value you can bet that they are. Better to be open about the need for people to remain current and employable than suppressing these conversations and losing visibility of them. By having open and positive conversations about people's personal development we may well identify desires that take people in unexpected yet beneficial directions for both them and the company, that might otherwise have simply taken them to the exit.

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