Discover more from Robbie Clutton
On levelling, learning and development
"It takes 1,000 days to forge the spirit and 10,000 days to polish it." - Miyamoto Musashi, 17th century samurai
Recently I’ve been having a few conversations with newer, growing companies about career development frameworks. Before diving into any ins and outs of such a framework I first want to touch on learning models.
Over the pandemic I took up Taekwondo with my daughter and I was quite taken by the definition of progression through the grades and belts. I think there is something to learn from this and apply to industry roles. Each grade, and its associated coloured belt, has a meaning related to growing a plant.
White belt presents innocence, a total novice,
Yellow belt presents a seedling plant, growing it’s first roots
Green belt presents sprouting, when the plant emerges from the soil and reveals its presence
Blue belt presents the plant growing, and stretching for the sky
Red belt presents danger. The student has knowledge but may lack experience or discipline. This may result in unintended injury to themselves or an opponent.
Black belt (1st Dan) presents a level of mastery, experience, and discipline
It is expected that from novice to black belt should take about 3-5 years. Once the 1st Dan is achieved, the student can be considered an assistant instructor. It takes a further 6-8 years to get to 4th Dan which is then considered an instructor and a Master - that’s 9-13 years from novice. It can then take another 20 years to achieve Grand Master status, about 30 years from novice.
Why am I describing Taekwondo here? First, the notion of lifelong learning is baked in. It is assumed to take 30 years to achieve the Grand Master rank. The path to that includes the first 3-5 years to first gain proficiency with incremental steps for the beginner and a built-in notion about becoming dangerous - in this case, knowledge but without discipline and experience. I think these are notions that can be applied to the professional realm. While a martial art like Taekwondo can have a syllabus, and well defined grading criteria - much like in the academic setting - the professional world is less structured.
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Another martial art to take inspiration from is Aidiko with Shuhari. I’m certainly not the first person to associate Shuhari with software development but it's worthy of inclusion here. Shu (守) means to obey, to learn the foundations. In Taekwondo this manifests through poomsae, and Karate through kata - both translate as patterns. These are sequences of movements designed to teach and reinforce strikes and blocks. This has been applied to the Toyota Kata as described in his books on the subject by Mike Rother around improvement and coaching. Ha (破) means to innovate, to break with tradition, and Ri (離) means to transcend, where everything is natural, and all things are allowed.
Let’s move away from martial arts and towards some learning models and see where some overlap might be. The “four stages of competence” proposes
unconscious incompetence - you don’t know what you don’t know
conscious incompetence - you know what you don’t know
conscious competence - you have acquired skill, but it takes effort to perform
unconscious competence - you have mastered skill, and performance is intuitive
The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a popular model which describes how a person moves through learning:
Novice, the student is following instructions without wider knowledge or context
Advanced beginner, the student is still rule based but can start to apply context
Competent, the student has a wider grasp of the domain and can perform tasks within context
Proficient, the student is transcending the structure, and starting to innovate on solutions
Expert, the student no longer relies on rules and guidelines, much is now at an unconscious level
One more model, and one which is more aimed at career levelling as opposed to skill acquisition, the Radford:
“All models are wrong, but some are useful” – George Box, statistician
Charlie Munger, legendary investor of Berkshire Hathaway, recommends applying multiple models to a problem to solve, in the hope that one model might find weaknesses where another does not, and to seek any overlap suggesting a way forward across the models applied. None of the models above by themselves might be the right one for you, your company and situation to apply to learning and development, but perhaps a few of them overlaid might show a path forward.
In the companies I’ve worked with, there tends to be an individual contributor, or practitioner level, and I’ve seen it tends to go from 1-6. I have seen some extend beyond that for those few exceptional individuals, I’ve seen that tend to be called “Distinguished” or “Fellow”. There then tends to be management and then executive levels which follow similar models.
So if you are building a career development framework for the first time, what do these models reveal?
There are three phases in a profession, the first is entry, where the individual is learning and acquiring skill and experience; the second is seniority, where the individual is applying context to skill; and the third is mastery, where the individual transcends the rules and guidelines in their work.
Break down early career roles into a few levels. This allows both granular definition and growth plans for individuals and also gives them “high five” moments when you promote them from one to another. There is a high pace of progression at these earlier stages.
Career progression is expected to take longer between higher levels, in part as it’s harder to measure how an individual transcends the rules, and in part as so much of it is based on experience. Be aware that there will be some who expect the pace of progression to be linear (i.e. being promoted frequently)
Other things to be aware of also, job titles in one company will not equate to job titles in another company. This becomes pronounced the higher the level. Some companies appear to have done away with prefixes on job titles. On levels.fyi Facebook Software Engineer levels are listed as E3-9. Some have a mixture, VMware for instance has levels 1-3 and then introduces prefixes like ‘Senior’, ‘Staff’ and ‘Principal’. I could see this being a bit of a double-edged sword. The removal of the title might take some emotion out of a discussion with some people for the better, and some might desire an attachment to a title.
Here are some examples of what I’ve seen - each column doesn’t necessarily correspond to companies 1:1 as I’ve tried to show various titles used at various levels.
“Mastery is a journey, not a destination. True masters never believe they have attained mastery. There is always more to be learned and greater skill to be developed.” ― Timothy Ferriss, Tribe Of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World
I’m going to aim to follow this up with how to look at measuring performance. What have I missed from this section and what would you like to see in the follow up? I’m keen to hear your suggestions.