Please start growing your people

I have been considering double loop learning and I said that we should continually work on our skills in order to even keep moving at the same pace or, hopefully, grow better each year.

People agree that it is important to invest in themselves and their crew, yet they seem to struggle to find the time to actually make the investment.

I don’t believe that this is because “management don’t care about people here,” or that “our crew just don’t want to learn new things.” Instead, I believe that there are two main reasons for no investing in skill growth, lacking a clear strategy, and being too busy.

Further, I believe that both of these causes are in turn caused by the same thing – a lack of transparency or visibility of value. But rather than customer value it is the the “value of developing our skills” that is not clearly visible and the customer is the team rather than an outside party.

I thought it might be worth detailing a simple 3 step plan to remedy this. It is not revolutionary and it is not complicated. If you have regular retrospectives or team meetings then you can even do it in small steps in the sessions you already have.

Here are the 3 steps:

  1. Review your teams skills (Covered in this article).
  2. Create a succession plan.
  3. Turn that into a skills backlog.

Reviewing your team’s skills

Doing a full team audit is valuable but time consuming but a lot of the value comes from the first few steps, so that is our focus here.

Discussing team capability and potential

Leaders can get together and review the strengths of the team in secret or better yet, you can do it as a team instead. There may be a little tension if you discuss leadership potential or technical mastery in the open, but the discussion is normally pretty positive.

I often have each team member review their strengths on their own and then share their findings, but for this article let’s assume that we are doing it all in one hit as a team.

An example of a group discussion

Start by reminding people of your team purpose or core product offering:

We provide something to someone for some reason

The team being precise about their purpose

Then have a look at your skills. I like to do this with graphs

  1. What people are actually working on versus what we claim our value or offering is. Let’s call this our team’s “market demand”; and
  2. What people think we are good at versus what we think is important. Let’s call this our “product – market fit.”

What is the team actually working on?

To do the first graph, give everyone some post-it notes. Ask them to list the things that should be important in order for us to focus on our team purpose or role. Then get them to create post-it notes to show what they are actually doing a lot of.

In theory these should be the same things – we should be doing a lot of valuable things and not much else. But in practice I often find that we do a lot of work that is not what directly aligned to our purpose.

Have everyone add their post-it notes to the wall and then discuss what you observe. If there are a lot of things that people are doing that are not actually aligned to our (assumed) purpose then this means one of two things:

  • We are distracted by noise and should start to refocus. For example people might come to use because we never say no, or we might have retained old work after the last restructure, when it should have been dropped or gone somewhere else, or maybe even people are just doing work they like and working with their friends, rather than focusing on our core strategic goals; or
  • There is a lot of demand that we are fulfilling that is evolving beyond our old purpose and we should reassess whether we need to change our “product mix” to optimise for the new world. This could make visible things that we did not realise we were starting to offer, so don’t skip over this conversation too quickly. There are a number of teams I have worked with who were able to reframe their purpose and gain permission to do officially what they were already starting to do anyway.

Either way we now have an opportunity to discuss what is important to us and what do not think matters. Based on that we can shift the conversation to the skills and capabilities we need as a team.

What are we good at and what do we need to be good at?

Do another graph and repeat the previous process, this time comparing the things we need to be good at to the things that we are actually good at.

Have people put things up on the wall again and discuss what people observe. After a short conversation, ask about the depth we have in the important skills. By this I mean the number of people who excel at or are good enough at the important work.

You will often find that there are one or two people who are good at something and we need to have them mentor others to improve, or we need more people to develop this skill/talent, knowledge.

Often, some of the team are really good a things that are not very important. I call these legacy skills and they can provide some opportunities and also some uncomfortable reality checks.

If legacy skills are not important now, then we should probably stop developing them and apply our energy to something else.

But before we discard them, it might be worth considering whether you can identify opportunities to provide something different to your stakeholders (ie internal and external customers) that relies on your legacy skills or perhaps coach others in them.

If we cannot find a latent demand for using or teaching these skills then we should probably put them on a “not to do” list and start resisting the urge to use them. This is an area that might distact the team and drag them back into past behaviours.

Anyway – there are also things that we are bad at that are not important. These should be eradicated, resisted, automated or passed onto someone who does find them important. Again these can go on our “not to do” list and we can have a mitigation strategy to protect the team if we are asked to do these things.

Next there are things that are important that we are good at. These are core competencies and we should advertise them to others, protect them and continue to hone them. We might even discuss how we can work as a team to challenge and grow ourselves in these areas, or how we can come up with additional offerings that rely on these capabilities.

Next we have some things that are important that we are not yet good at. Perhaps we can partner with others or bring in a contractor to fill the gap. But if we do then we need to ensure we are not just covering our weaknesses because these skills are good areas for development for the rest of the team.

Similarly, if we have only one or two people who are good at them then we can look at mentoring, peer reviewing and other ways to spread the skills to others, rather than just allocating the specialised work to specific people all the time.

Our next sprint/roadmap planning should look at how build these skills while also getting our work done. For example you can write the key development areas up on a wall and then just discuss how to work on this in your planning and review sessions.

Evolution is not the exception, it’s the rule

Most teams do not live in a stable world, so the skills that important today may or may not be important tomorrow. This is fine if we we see people as expendable and just replace them whenever we need new skills, but a better approach is to continuously anticipate the need for growth and invest some time in the right areas.

Since I often coach teams to be agile, there are obvious new skills that might be coming along – such as facilitation, delegation, coaching etc. But the same holds true if you are ditching a legacy technology to “go into the cloud” or launching new products to new types of customers.

So again we can use a simple graph – this time comparing what is important today with what will be important soon.

Or similarly, people might be a bit bored in their roles and looking to learn new things

In both these cases we want to avoid the things that we don’t want to do, that we are not good at and that are never going to be important.

We probably also want to leverage the things that we are good at, or that are important today, to keep getting the work done while we make time to learn the new things that we want to do in the future, or that are going to be important.

So the question we ask here is “how can we use what we are good at now, to create opportunities to learn the skills we will need “in the future”?” Of maybe “how do we dump the things that won’t matter soon so that we can start practicing the things we need to learn?”

Based on this data you can now create a “learning backlog” of things to learn and if you are really interested in your crew then you can do some simple succession planning to make sure that you are constantly honing, broadening and developing the capability where you need it, rather than just flogging yourselves and hoping that next year will be calmer so you can do development then.


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