Encourage Lateral and Vertical Movement in an Agile a Career Ladder, Part 3

As people gain experience, they often want new and different responsibilities. In a typical career ladder (Part 1), they had one direction: up. That often creates a problem: great technical people become insufficient managers. Let's not blame these people—many of them didn't want to become managers However, if people want more responsibility, the career ladder often forces people into management. Worse, most career ladders assume we can assess what a person can do, not on their contributions to an agile team. (Part 2 )

That means most career ladders don't fit agile teams or an agile culture.

Instead of individual achievements, we can reward the types of agile leadership we want to see in agile teams. And offer more flexibility to people who want to experiment with more and different kinds of responsibility.

Separate the Kinds of Leadership

Types of technical leadershipI defined several types of “technical” leadership in this image.

The left-most, column includes primarily code- or product-based leadership. People can advance based on how much influence they have with the team and the product.

We need to see results to allow you to influence us. (See Three Secrets to Building Your Influence, Part 1, Competence.)

What about title-based influence? That's the weakest kind of influence. People still need to believe you, as your title, can offer us sufficient leadership.

If you're a team member, how can you show your competence and gain influence if you're supposed to work with other people? You might consider and practice these possibilities:

  • Pair with other people
  • Offer and receive feedback that you use
  • Experiment with short feedback loops
  • Ask for help. (This is a sign of strength)
  • Consider alternatives and work to show your adaptability

What about your initiative? Instead of your initiative for your achievements, you use an overarching goal to support the team and the product.

As you learn, you share that knowledge with the team. Or, you learn directly with the team.

You optimize “up” at the team level, not at your individual level.

Technical influence takes many forms.

Consider This Alternative for Technical Influence

Technical InfluenceAs people gain more experience and expertise, they influence more people and more of the product.

Note that the Senior engineer might influence the entire team. While the consulting engineer might influence the team, the entire product codebase, and influence across the product.

This might not look that different from your current technical career ladder. Let me add the process ladder.

A Process Alternative Career Ladder

Process Influence Career LadderWhen people move from purely technical influence to more process influence, they tend to start with more responsibility.

In most organizations, if you're a project manager, or Scrum Master, or some other designated facilitative leader, you probably don't code or test anymore.

Instead, you use your influence to support the team's process. You help the team recognize its cycle time, item aging, the bottlenecks in its agile approach, and more.

If you're a product owner, you might collaborate across the product as part of a product value team. (I didn't call out the PO role in the ladder above. I called it a Facilitator role.)

The more senior you are, the more you influence work across several teams, several products, and the organization. Not because you have a specific title. But because people can trust your judgment and you've proven you can deliver.

(Side note: I was an engineer the first time I led a small 3-person project. I gained a ton of experience and benefit from that practice. People can practice without a new title.)

A People Alternative Career Ladder

People Influence LadderManagers focus on the people. That's because management's job is to create an environment in which people can do their best job.

This means managers must collaborate because what they do affects the team(s), product(s), and the organization. (See Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization.)

See that “reinforce culture” in the organization influence column? That's where managers start and refine an agile culture.

We can start with teams and the product. But, until management rewards collaboration, and dis-incents solo work, an agile culture has no chance.

When we think about movement, influence can offer people ways to move sideways, not just up and down.

Influence Can Offer Movement

If you take a larger view, see how each ladder discusses influence at these levels: team, product, and organization.

That's how people can move across, not just up.

Imagine you're a senior engineer. You want to expand your skills. Where can you go?

  • Maybe work as a Scrum Master, agile project manager, or a Product Owner to increase your process-oriented influence.
  • Consider a technical lead position to increase technical influence.
  • Even a first-line management role to increase your organizational influence.

You try that option—and with any luck, your managers offer you training.

After six months or a year, you say, “This role isn't for me. I'd like to try a different form of influence.”

Because you've been practicing influence and collaboration, you can move across. You don't move “up” or “down.” You move across.

That across movement creates adaptability in the career ladders.

Agile Career Ladders Offer Adaptability

In my experience, we rarely fire people because they can't do the technical part of the job. We more often fire people because they can't fit into a team or an organization.

Too often, I see someone with extensive technical influence in the product and the team move “up” to a management role. However, the person wants to extend their technical influence. They don't want to add process and organizational influence.

That's when we encounter the problem of a technical person getting promoted into a management role that doesn't fit.

Instead of a ladder that focuses on personal achievement, it's time to expand what we want in a career ladder. I was after something like this with the idea of “scope” in Creating Agile HR, Part 5: Performance Management, the Career Ladder.

Dual-track career ladders don't work for agile organizations. We need triple-track career ladders. Maybe more tracks.

The more tracks we have, the more each person can create adaptability in their career.

This is a series:

Now, what questions do you have? I need to write more posts about compensation, but let's start with career ladder questions.

3 thoughts on “Encourage Lateral and Vertical Movement in an Agile a Career Ladder, Part 3”

  1. Brigham Johnson

    You write that “… across movement creates adaptability in the career ladders.” So, a Sr. Dev might become a Scrum Master.
    Is this feasible pay-wise? Sr. Devs generally command higher salaries (fact checks welcome, but “supply and demand”) so would companies willingly “overpay” them to work as Scrum Masters? Maybe on a short-term basis for the real-life experience? Would “short-term” be healthy for the team?

    1. Brigham, thank you for your insightful comment. This is exactly why we can’t rank people across the company. We do different work.

      As for payment, what’s the scope of the work that the two people do? I would expect a senior dev to offer substantial scope in how the code/test/product works. I would expect the dev to generate ideas and use his/her influence to suggest changes to the technical process and the team’s work.

      I also have high expectations of a Scrum Master. I expect that a SM facilitates the team’s work; helps facilitate the team’s approach; and works to clear impediments the team encounters. That’s a lot of change-focused work. If the SM can do that, the SM is at least as valuable as a senior dev.

      You are correct in terms of supply and demand for salaries. I suggest we have very few effective Scrum Masters. We have a ton of people who have passed a certification course. That cert does not say anything about their ability to do the job as I think they need to do the job. You don’t have to agree with me 🙂

      The work is different. We have three interesting questions:
      – What is the scope of the person’s influence?
      – How much is that scope worth to the company?
      – Is there a premium on the person’s value because of insufficient people who can do the job?

      Very interesting questions. Thanks for asking.

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