Stop Trying to Fix Your Weaknesses (Part 2)

Reading time ~12 minutes

Following on from part 1 last week where I described the foundation concepts for a lean/agile development plan, here’s the detail…

So far I’ve done this twice with some of my team here and I’m in the process of introducing it across a couple of other teams and managers. As part of writing the details up, I’ve come up with some minor refinements and sequencing options that we didn’t think of at the time and added these in.

Before you start make sure you have a decent space to work in with no distractions and plenty of time. You’ll need about 2 hours but give yourself 2-3 so you have some slack. You don’t have to use it all and it’s surprising how good people feel when they think they’ve recovered some time back.

Grab a room, a pile of stickies and some markers. Did I mention you’ll need to use a lot of space? (We used 3 walls). In the cases I’ve run so far, I didn’t prepare anything in advance but it’s probably best to write up the headings beforehand –  don’t show them until the participant is at the stage they’re needed though! (focus on 1 thing at a time – single piece flow!)

Step 0 – What are we trying to achieve?

An important point before we start. Are we working with someone who wants to improve themselves in their current role, address some known (or unknown) issues or who wants some kind of progression – a promotion, a sideways move, expansion of skills, increased responsibility, or something else?

Take 5 minutes to discuss the possible scope and direction of the session. Think about the level of change, disruption and ambition behind the improvement and what is or is not achievable. How long have they been in their current state, what sort or timescales are we looking at for the plan etc.

Step 1 – Looking Forward – “Over the next … … I will”

We’re going to use planning horizons and swim lanes to develop a timeline.

Build a large grid using stickies for each heading with vertical planning horizon columns (I suggest 1, 3, 6, 12 months) and 4 “achievement” (“I Will”)  swim lanes; “Done”, “Improved At”, “Tried” and “Learned”.

It should look something like this:

a blank grid showinf development plan planning horizon headings

Aim for the grid to have space for roughly 1-3 stickies per horizon/swim lane cell. – We’re using visual management and physical constraints to minimize over-commitment and set WIP limits. I’ll refer to this as the “plan grid” for the remainder of this post as we return to it a few times.

Now spend a few minutes adding stickies to the plan grid for the things you know you’re going to be doing. (don’t worry if there’s not many to start with we’ll be coming back to this later).

Here’s an example recently completed from one of my UX specialists at the start of the process…

PArtially completed dev plan calendar

This covers the baseline set of directions and commitments before we start adding to it.

If the person you’re working with has a good grasp of upcoming work for themselves, the team and product plans, you might find this fills quite well already. In the case above we’ve spent a lot of time talking about interests and direction in the past. We also have some pretty clear ideas on where we want to go with the product and technology. Visualizing this as a roadmap with a series of planning horizons and the “Do, Improve, Try, Learn” swim lanes for actions gives some initial structured thinking and timing to work from. We’ll circle back to this at the end of the session after exploring other areas of personal development and skills.

In this particular case, you can see we’ve actually filled quite a lot of space already. This doesn’t leave much room for new things unless we over-commit or trade-out other activities and that’s precisely the point – we’ve just baselined our commitment and workload.

Now let’s explore things further. We’ll take multiple approaches to exploring options. Some of these may duplicate information – that’s perfect, it’ll help us spot common threads later.

Step 2 – Develop Actions – “I Would Like” / “I Will”

We’ve developed a grid of over 20 actions with a single placeholder for each action (borrowing a 5S technique from Lean).  The set of actions is my chosen selection and works well so far. You may want to add or remove some of these depending on your context but the thinking behind these is to get participants to explore their available options beyond what might naturally come to mind.

Our aim is to place a single post-it/action under each heading. Eventually we’ll have every space completed with something sensible.

A grid of possible types of actions

We’ve deliberately not looked at any personal skills, strengths, weaknesses or needs yet. This is simply thinking about what types of actions a person could employ to develop themselves.

Sequencing Options: The first couple of times I used this with  my team we completed the grid in its entirety at the beginning. In hindsight, I recommend splitting the effort here to partially complete the list of actions at the beginning and then return to it after each of the next steps.

If you’re working with someone who needs more support in developing an understanding of their needs first, you may choose to start this step toward the end of the session after exploring strengths and skills further.

If you choose to use any of this process, please do experiment with the format  and post your experiences and improvements here!

When we first used this action grid, we wrote “over the next 12 months I will/would like…”  It worked well in our situation but it’s important to emphasize the difference between achievable and aspirational actions, so…

Minor Refinement: Once the grid is completed, run through it together and mark which actions are achievable – “I Will” – and which are aspirational -“I Would Like”. (using red/blue sticky dots or similar).

This encourages you to discuss and think through what will be possible and what may be a stretch (or even unrealistic). When looking at transferring actions to the plan grid, you can decide how much of  a stretch you want to make in any given period based on workload and other existing commitments. The “I Would Like” actions may also require some additional support to be achieved.

3 – Self-Reflection – “I’m Happy As I Am With…”

So we’ve got a structure for a plan, we know what commitments already exist and we have a set of potential actions. Let’s take a step back and deliberately reflect on strengths and improvement areas.

As I mentioned in part 1, it’s really important not to go overboard on perceived “weaknesses” so here we break a person’s perception of what they do and how they work into 3 areas:

3 headings for reviewing current skills

In order to reduce waste we want to emphasize improving strengths and bringing any gaps to a necessary minimum level only. At this point we focus mostly on the person side of things. How do they work and what do they do? (Not “what does their current or desired role need?” )

As a person or individual, what’s their self-perception around their day to day actions, activities and behaviors. Ask them to think about and describe what areas they see as real strengths – what’s their specialism or superpower if any, what do they really enjoy (and how competent are they at it?), what things do they feel they suck at (and is that a problem or not?). What are the remaining things that they just get on and do? How well do they do those?

Here’s an example of the sort of things we’re after…

an example of strengths and areas for improvement

Note how this is general activities that tie-back to what a person is doing on a day to day basis in their current context, not just the usual skill inventory type list. It’s about the things we perceive – what we do and how we do it. (we’ll look at the skills next)

If you decided to develop the action grid from step 2 in small steps, now’s the time to re-check to see if there’s some actions that could be added as a result of the strengths or improvement needs here.

Allow enough time for the participant to run out of things to add – don’t be afraid of a bit of silence or thinking time – just sit back and let them run until the ideas dry up.

4 – Skills Investigation

We’ve explored self-perception and started rolling on possible actions. Now we’re going to look more at role-based skills.

Depending on the scope and direction agreed in step 0, this may be covering either a current or desired role.

Have the developee list out what they think the skills they have/need for that role are, what additional industry or domain-related skills they have/need and what additional soft skills they have/need.

What skills do you have / need for your job

We want to steer participants into thinking of these skills themselves so if you think they’re missing anything, try to use coaching questions rather than direct addition of examples. Encourage thinking about their gaps or using examples. (E.g. “Assuming you’re about to kick off a new feature, what types of activities do you need to undertake? What skills do you need to engage the team?)

Once again, give this enough time to play out to a natural end.

5 – Skills Rating – Getting 1 Step Further

A big thanks to Veronika Kotrba  (@Simply_Coaching) and Ralph Miarka (@RalphMiarka) for the inspiration on this part – this is adapted from their work on solution-focused coaching.

Once you’ve got 3 lists of skills, have the participant rate themselves out of 10 at how good they think they are at each one of these skills. Get them to mark this consistently in one corner of each sticky. (They might guess what’s coming next but let this bit finish first).

Talk through what makes them say they’re at that level. Now get them to think about what their desired  level for that skill would be – make sure they understand that “getting to 10” may not always be needed or even beneficial (remember their strengths and weaknesses). What would be right for them. Mark that in the opposite corner.

Now get them to mark the top 3 areas that they would particularly like to focus on.

rate the skills and behaviors you have

For each of these focus skills, talk through what actions or activities they would need to do to get from their current state to move one point forward.  E.g. If someone’s at a “4” today and eventually wants to get to a “7”, what would it take to get to “5”.  Ask them to visualize what that result might look like and describe it to you.

Again if you’re partially completing the action grid as you go. Now’s the time to see if there’s some more actions to add or any existing ones that could be switched out or replaced.

6 – Common Threads & Themes

We’ve now tackled skills, behaviors and improvement ideas from multiple directions and explored (hopefully) some areas in quite a bit of depth. Looking across all the details on the walls, are there any patterns, common threads or themes?

What do these highlight?

Name these, write them out and put them next to the plan grid from step 1

identify top 3 common threads

This comes back to my love of patterns and naming. By giving something a name and focus you can assemble more of a mental model around what that thing is. This makes it easier to understand what is or isn’t in scope for a theme.

As with the skills, I recommend limiting the number of threads / areas of focus to 3 or less.

When I’m trying to get stuff done I have a small mental buffer and 3 is about my upper limit (2 works better). Any more than that and my brain starts thrashing. The same works here – trying to fit too much in your head will make things harder later.

7 – Actions – Pulling It All Together

Now let’s get back to the action and plan grids.

First of all, make sure we’ve got a single item in every space on the action grid. You might need to get some creative thinking in to fill them all but it’s worth the effort. When that grid is filled it gives us an unsorted long-term backlog of ideas for our developee. When someone completes a particular action type you can decide whether to add a replacement or to continue clearing down the grid before adding anything new.

Don’t forget to mark which are directly achievable – “I Will” – and which are aspirational – “I Would Like”.

For the aspirational items, take some time to discuss and understand what support or commitment will be needed to make them achievable.

Now have the participant copy a small number of the actions from the action grid and decide where to place them in to the 1/3/6/12 month plan in the plan grid. (don’t move the originals – you’ll need them)

Next, have them look at those top areas identified for improvement (from the Self-Reflection and Skills Investigation activities) and identify any further specific actions for each (or a subset if there’s too many)

For each selected action, they need to decide when they intend to undertake it and place it  in the corresponding location on the plan.

If there’s not enough space on the plan grid, remember that physical space constraint gives us a WIP limit! What do they need to trade out to stop themselves over-committing?

Here’s an updated example from step 1. Note we didn’t add much beyond the first 1-3 months this time around as we expect to come back to this again when that planning horizon has cleared.  We also had some really powerful conversations around their overall development and direction.

Don’t underestimate the value of the conversations themselves, not just the artifacts! For the participant in particular, those conversations may have crystallized a whole bunch of questions about their personal direction and goals for the future.

A completed development plan grid

8 – Review – Is It Achievable?

Talk through the final plan grid, discuss timings and workload. Does the participant feel that the plan is achievable? Is there anything they might change? Are there any areas of risk or concern?

Take some time to talk through the actions grid (now a backlog). Are there any things there that might be time-sensitive or wholly unachievable or mis-aligned that they want to swap out?

9 – Ownership – Whose Plan Is It?

Here’s where many development plans fall down.

Chances are you can’t leave all that stuff on the walls so capture all the content on decent (readable) photos and then harvest the stickies in their respective groups.

Ensure the participant gets both the original stickies and a copy of the photos. Ask the participant to type up the results of the session and to share back – agree when they’ll have this completed – ideally within the next 24 hours. (It’s amazing how much you learn from typing up post-it notes after any session!)

Ensure their actions grid is converted to a backlog and the plan grid is written up as a plan that can both be updated and modified easily. (one of my UX team wrote theirs up using – this is particularly neat as they were able to mimic the format we used in the room very closely)

In discussing ownership of development plans we’ve identified that simply handing over ownership is not enough. The developee will still need support, coaching and mentoring to progress successfully. Don’t let them fail alone.

10 – Follow-Through

Once the write-up is complete (depending on the participant you may need to chase them to ensure this happens).  Follow up quite frequently to start with. I recommend at least once or twice in the first 2 weeks, and then again at the end of the first month planning horizon.

Minor refinement: It may also be useful to extend the planning horizon backwards by a month or more during your review cycle. You can encourage the developee to add other things they’ve achieved and “bank” these.

We know that people naturally do things that aren’t strictly on a plan.  Make a point of marking those achievements. This lets us review what we’ve achieved on a rolling basis and gives us a trailing indicator of progress and capacity.

Depending on how things are progressing and the level of interaction or support needed, agree on a follow-up cycle and set dates for a regular one on one catch-up session to talk through progress, changes, adjustments or resets. At the 3 or 6 month point, schedule a more detailed review and repeat session.

That’s it! (so far).

Edit: We’ve been so successful in our initial trial with a few staff in my division that we’re expanding the trial across the company. We’ve also learned a few important tweaks and traps along the way. See where we are now in part 3.

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