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The Mythical Dual Ladder

The figure below shows a typical skill development timeline. At “t=0” ignorance reigns and learning begins. After a period of learning/applying/practicing, which varies widely from person to person, the status of “Novice” is achieved. After yet another period of learning/applying/practicing, the transition from novice to amateur occurs – and so on up to the level of master and beyond.

The key attribute to focus on in the timeline is the change in length of time required to transition from one level of competence to the next. It doesn’t stay the same or get smaller, it gets longer. Thus, with exceptions of course, the time required to transition from expert to master is greater than the time to transition from amateur to expert.

To remain viable, every product development company requires a critical mass of expertise in the core technologies that comprise the soul of its product portfolio. World class companies actively “nourish and catalyze” the novice-to-expert pipeline via continuous investments in targeted training and conference attendance. Average companies neither nourish or catalyze the pipeline, they “hope for the best” in that their employees will keep up with technology advancements on their own time. In the extreme, CLORGS and DYSCOs unconsciously “toxify and inhibit” the pipeline – if one is even recognized at all. They do this by implicitly encouraging experts to move out of technology and into management via higher compensation and stature for those experts/masters who jump from the mythical technical ladder to the coveted management ladder.

  1. January 4, 2012 at 1:10 am

    I think part of what drives this dual ladder is that a lot of programmers are expecting to get into the management side of things, and naturally expect to advance and lead their own teams and do other project decisions.

    At the same time, it really helps to have a programmer acting as directory, or supervisor in a technology firm. Otherwise the company may not have the skills required to make the appropriate decisions. However, I would strongly suggest this person have first acquired at least an expert level in the technology, otherwise they also won’t be able to contribute meaningfully.

    • January 4, 2012 at 5:11 am

      Thanks for your thoughts Mortoray.

  2. fish don't climb ladders--no arms
    January 4, 2012 at 8:23 am

    You probably should lower the intersect point where the jump to “management” is made–in many org’s, this transition takes place before the individual has really achieved any mastery at all–quite often, they make the jump BECAUSE they are struggling to improve technically.

    This results in many ‘managers’ lacking underlying skill sets to truly understand what their minions are doing, and how they do it.

    I’ve also noticed that in many occupations–programming, design, etc–the technological changes that occur over time tend to be picked up the the people immersed within their occupation–better code languages, improved design tools–but the ‘Supervisor’ making that jump becomes stratified with the existing knowledge-base that they have absorbed up to the point of transition, and because they are no longer exposed to the day-to-day improvements and enhancements taking place within their former trade, they reach a point where they are completely out of touch with the very processes they are ‘managing’.

    FORTRAN training, supervising a Silverlight implementation = Train Wreck???

    • January 4, 2012 at 11:01 am

      Great points FDCL.

      I don’t understand your suggestion to lower the intersect point. It already is below both the expert and master “rungs”.

      • FDCL
        January 4, 2012 at 11:29 am

        Too high up…close to mastery. Needs to be closer to amateur because as their skillsets stagnate over time, their abilities decrease relative to new processes/technologies.

        A.C. Clarke once said…as technologies gain in complexity, they appear as magic to the uninformed.

        The ignorant tend to be fearful of magic, which is why uninformed supervisor-types exhibit hostility when confronted by a process that is beyond them.

  3. January 4, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    I really like your diagram Bulldozer; it really communicates. I have direct experience of this from both sides as I am a nerd with a PhD, but also co-founded a successful high-tech startup almost 20 years ago.

    The tech of our business (logistics, planning, human factors) always interacted with the expert to master level in our client businesses. That meant that our client champions would often shift ladders after we established a good business relationship (which had a learning curve as our approach has been unconventional but effective.) Most often this meant another learning curve for the next “expert” decision-maker, but we then expanded our relationship building with our clients, so that the natural replacements for those being shifted, would already have been on much of the learning curve.

    But the blocker still remained that the larger contracts would be made in the second ladder using the antiquated systems understandings of the financial people, who keep breaking Ashby’s law of requisite variety (cybernetics.)

    The biggest point of leverage from my perspective remained the HR departments who could have extended the first ladder upward in a more creative way (which is what we did with our successful but small company (12)).

    • January 5, 2012 at 5:45 am

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for the feedback. Are you still at the company you founded 20 years ago?

      • January 5, 2012 at 11:21 am

        Yes I am, it has become a little less “adventurous” with respect to business practices, and its major revenue now comes in the risk management field with human factors in safety-critical businesses. We have carried out a very successful “succession” internally, by moving up our very effective managers up to leadership, while the original founders (4) have mostly remained on our board.

  4. January 5, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    It would be awesome if you wrote an essay/blog on your experience from startup to maturity. I’d love to read it.

    • January 6, 2012 at 2:46 am

      Thanks, it would be a useful doc in my view as well. But my current priority in this area is a collaboration (book) on the diverse and very pervasive principles behind Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Not only does the business & organizational world not get it, but it pervades our worldviews, cultures and very consciousness in my view.

      • January 6, 2012 at 5:34 am

        I agree. I think very few business leaders think systemically. They’re always zeroing in on and acting on the latest problem “part” of the org.

        Ross Ashby was a genius. In a dyfunctional org, either the controller’s variety has to be increased or the controllee’s variety must be decreased. Did you know that all of his work is available online? http://www.rossashby.info/

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