Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Four Boxes

My recent post, The Value of Letting People Do What They're Good At, touches on the concept that you might not always have exactly the people you want at exactly the time that you want them, but that there are almost always things that people are good at that can make them valuable to the team.

I talked heavily about skills--or lack of them--in that post. This post is about the maturity level of a worker, and where you'd like that maturity level to be for your team and for that person's advancement.

To explain what the heck I mean, I'll be calling back to an old manager of my own, Adam. Adam drew four boxes on a white board for me and labeled them. What you see below is my own awesome high tech reproduction of his line drawings (phear my l33t paintshop skillz):

In my boss's MBA class, they had done this same diagram and labeled the boxes as different responsibility/maturity levels of a worker. Note, he didn't have labels other than A-D, I'm sort of putting my own in to make this a little easier to understand without standing in front of a guy who does a good bit of communication with his hands:

A = The Boot Camp Soldier. This is the type of employee that needs constant supervision and direction. Like a Boot Camp Soldier, they are told when to get up, when to eat, when to brush their teeth, how to brush their teeth, etc.

B = The Task Completer. This is the type of employee that doesn't need the level of supervision of level A; they are told the task to be done, rough requirements for its completion, and are checked in on periodically. Otherwise, they are left to their own devices to complete the task, and typically they do on time and as expected. These tasks can last a few days up to a week.

C = The Project Completer. This is the type of employee that doesn't need the level of supervision of level B; they are given a project, requirements for the specific project, and a deadline. They are expected to ask you if they need additional items. A project can last several weeks. They check in with you, occasionally. Then they deliver the project on time.

D = Another you. This is the type of employee that doesn't really need supervision. You give them an idea, who to talk to for requirements, and leave them alone for a month or two. They check in with you regularly, give status reports, and come in on budget and on time.

The sweet spot for most teams is if all the employees are in boxed B and C. Employees too much in box A are a natural drain on your resources--you're having to tell them how and when to do everything, or someone else on the team has to do so.

Employees too much in box D are going to get a little chafed and frustrated because the team already has a leader in place. Even if they like you, have gained that level of maturity working for you, and are the best right hand you've ever had, they will eventually get frustrated at not leading their own team. When someone is in box D, you keep them there for a while to make sure they know the ropes of running their own team, and then, like someone you love, you let them go; if it all works out, you've created a strong ally at your level or just below it. If you keep them and use them because they're good, and don't look to their career and happiness, you may create your own destruction as they wonder if the only way they can excel is if you are gone.

Employees straight out of other career paths or straight from school are frequently in the "A" block. While they learn the ropes, Boot Camp behavior is probably not a bad plan; however, as they understand them, give them more to think about and make decisions upon. If they hesitate, be supportive. If they continue hesitate, you might not want to keep them. A should naturally lead to B with your support and help in trusting their instincts, rewarding their successes and forgiving their mistakes. Teach them to mitigate the damage they cause, to admit when they are wrong and take credit when they do right, and they will move to B rapidly.

Most employees are typically at the state of "B." Either they've never been asked to do more, never understood that more was an available option, or they've become set in their ways, most employees can do a given task or set of tasks that they were hired for without tons of supervision. You did hire them for that specific talent.

Despite the complacency that "B" can provide--its warm and comfortable and familiar--you do want to encourage employees into C. You aren't always going to be there to help them with critical decisions, and you don't want to make yourself a choke point. People in the "B" box have some critical thinking skills, and its up to you to develop and encourage them. They will make decisions you wouldn't make. But pick what you care about; its often more important they feel empowered to make a decision and the project moves forward than it is that they make exactly the decision you would make. They should understand how to mitigate mistakes made by themselves at this point, but you want to help them understand how to think like a team, so they can mitigate mistakes made by any team member, or throw in and help any team member not make a mistake. Moving people from the B to the C box is a matter of moving from individual contributor thinking to team thinking; C is the first step of leadership, and while they may not want to become leaders (some people don't), they need to know what's involved so they can know a good leader from a bad one and plan accordingly.

C is probably the best box for your team members to be in; you want them always growing and always learning. You don't want your well oiled machine to break off and fly to higher heights (which either sounds like my metaphor exploded or got mixed, but go with me here), but it won't remain a well oiled if there isn't the promise of growing and getting better. Growing in maturity as an employee at this point can and will lead to higher salaries and more responsibilities and basically getting to do the stuff those employees find more fun. Employees in the C box are those that are highly sought after; people who think of the team as a whole and work for the benefit of all are very hard to find.

For the C box there are two potential options. Option 1: Stay in the C box. If you talk to them and find out that leadership is not the path they choose, you need to keep them learning and growing, keep giving them opportunities to informally lead, and basically, let them enjoy the fact that they are self directing and getting stuff done. You'll enjoy it, too, and they won't get bored.

Option 2: start working with the folks in the C box to get them into the D box. This may mean if you are a manager that they become a lead (sort of a sub-manager position) for your team, and take on whole projects that take months and lots of cross-team work to complete. Make these projects learning experiences so they can work better in your realm; take their counsel under advisement (even if you don't always follow it). When they're ready and you can do it, help them find their own team, their own project, their own way. You can still help them--a mentor is often a mentor far longer than two people work together--but they can pursue management and leadership. Some people see this as "training the competition," but I see it as training people to do things the way you like them done; makes it easier to get what you want in a meeting of the minds of your peers or the folks just below you. And heck, if someone competes and wins; someone who trusts you and values your judgment is now in a position of importance above you. It's basically a win-win.

So there you have it. Assess the maturity level of your employees, and then, while doing all your other amazing tasks, help them grow to the level where they will be successful and happy. Your team will benefit from it--so you will immediately benefit from it--and they will, too, by bringing benefits far into the future.

1 comment:

  1. another good thing to remember is that a C or D employee at one task, may be an A or B at another. Be aware, be knowledgeable and most of all, talk to your employee. Ask them where they feel they fall when you give them new tasks. The danger with not having this open and candid communication can result in the pitfall of "Promoting people to their highest level of incompetence." A good manager never wants to set their people up for failure