Stop Trying to Fix Your Weaknesses (Part 1)

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Recently I’ve been working on a new approach to personal development plans using a few tricks from lean & agile thinking. Today I wanted to share the foundations of the approach.

It started with a lesson from the same coach who taught me that a leader sets the tone for their team.

As part of a leadership program I attended with one of my previous employers back in 2007 I completed an in-depth 360 degree appraisal to learn more about my behaviors and emotional intelligence.

The assessment required input from 20+ people who knew me.

  • All direct reports
  • All immediate team peers
  • A selection of friends and colleagues across teams
  • My direct manager
  • My Manager’s manager
  • At least 2 Suppliers
  • At least 2 Customers

Every attendee of the residential programme was given their 360 degree feedback in a 1-1 session and walked through the results in detail. In a couple of alarming cases, the disconnect between how a person saw themselves and how their teams saw them actually required individual counselling.

In my case, I found that everyone but my direct manager was very closely aligned with my self-perception. Given the high standards my manager held for all his team I was happy with this result – he measured the team’s comparative performance against his own exactingly-high standards, it’s why we were both successful but continued to strive for improvement.

The walk-through of the 360 showed each of us what was considered an “acceptable” competence level for each category measured and what was considered “exceptional”.

This is a pretty powerful way of thinking about things. We may all want to be exceptional but I’ll highlight the lesson many people miss with an example…

Usain Bolt may be currently the worlds greatest sprinter but that doesn’t mean he’s the world’s greatest javelin thrower or even marathon runner.

Chances are he’s pretty good at other things – as a world-class professional athlete he’ll have a broad baseline of skills but he knows his strengths, invests in those and doesn’t waste his effort and training on the areas he’s just “ok” at.

He’s part of an Olympic team. In order for his country to be successful he’s surrounded by a high-calibre team with a broad set of skills, specializations and expertise. His team mates will be signficantly better than him in some areas.

By all means address your shortcomings that are actually problematic but recognize which skills you only need to be “OK” at, which you don’t need at all and where you need to excel. If you need excellence across the board, chances are you need a team, not an individual.

Look around you and build a team that complements each others skills, gaps, shortcomings and mediocrity.

Save your precious time & effort (eliminate waste!) to focus on your strengths, find someone else to complement your weaknesses instead.

At my current employer we already seek 360 feedback (but not at quite the depth of the EI appraisal) as part of our monthly staff 1-1s where we discuss performance, status, career direction and well-being. We don’t have annual performance appraisals but we do encourage staff to have personal development plans if possible (note – we only encourage them, they’re not mandatory).

Recently I’ve wanted to improve our uptake of development plans for the team but I know they’re often really hard to work. Let’s consider some of the issues I’ve seen in weak personal development plans over the years:

  • Management-led

Despite there being a need for the person being developed to “own” the plan, the manager is the one to identify and initiate the process and then draw out the plans and actions. This leaves little ownership, motivation or inspiration for the developee.

  • Lack of ideas

When a developee first starts on a development plan, they think they “should” improve and move forward (it’s what businesses expect of us) but are unsure on personal direction and their needs. They may be starting with a blank slate.

  • Driven by identified shortcomings

The concept of a “PDP” is often a remedial measure. Whilst this may be necessary, they focus on getting developees “above the line”. They lack a means to shine and excel.

  • The “day job” gets in the way

Activities required to significantly level-up in an area may be disconnected from what’s required to simply deliver on a day-to-day basis. Balancing a day job with significant performance improvement is hard.

  • Behavioral improvements are hard to implement

If a developee isn’t a team player, how do you draw that out and get them to the point where they don’t revert back when the plan is over? Are there alternatives?

  • Over-commitment

Over-ambitious development plans may feel great when first drawn up but energy and motivation dwindles fast when things are difficult to achieve.

The approach I’m exploring aims to tackle these using lessons from lean, agile and my personal experience from the EI 360. Here’s what I’m trying out…

  • Collaborative Development

I work with the developee in a one on one workshop-style format. We take over a room for a couple of hours and using a structured, visual, kinesthetic, reflective sequence of steps we gradually  fill the walls with thoughts, ideas and actions.

  • Seeded Options

We’ve developed a list of over 20 concrete “activity types” for generating ideas that work well for developing people in novel ways. By borrowing a 5S tactic –  Seiton  from Lean we create a placeholder space for each action. We know we’re “done” when each activity type has its single placeholder space filled.

  • Focus on Strengths

Here we aim to eliminate waste. Instead of looking at weaknesses, we explore 3 areas; “I think I’m good at…”, “I need to improve…”, “I’m happy as I am with…”.

Note the use of first person statements – this is about self reflection, not external direction.

In explaining this area we point out that items “I think I’m good at” are potential strengths that can be developed further. Items “I need to improve” should only be for weaknesses that actually need to be addressed within the context of their team, role and self development. Items “I’m happy as I am with” are areas that even if weak, do not need to be developed further.

  • Balancing the Day Job

In order to be successful, we need to ensure we have sustainable pace. We achieve this through setting a series of planning horizons and using visual management and physical constraints to define natural WIP limits.

  • Highlight the Spectrum of Skills

I work collaboratively with the developee to draw out the list the skills they have or may be required for their development needs. We explicitly call out Role-specific skills, additional broader skills and soft skills as 3 categories. We then use simple measurement & rapid feedback to establish both baseline and desired levels for each area.

  • Iterative planning

After pulling the threads together and building a plan with sustainable pace, we sanity-check the plan. Do we feel what’s there is achievable in the next sprint (for example). We agree the review and follow-up cycle and adjust as we go.

In part 2 you can read though the detailed mechanics of how I’ve been doing this with some of my team, including some minor improvements as a direct result of writing up the details. I’ll post an update on how this is all going in future.

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