The Skills Matrix is Dead, Long Live the Skills Matrix!

Advancing Undercurrent’s People Strategy

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder of Nature of Work

Work is increasingly discontinuous, nonlinear, and requires whole-system thinking in most organizational environments. Simply put, it’s getting more complex.

However, most organizations even the more progressive companies (e.g. ones that are orienting to self-organization and self-management) have not evolved their thinking towards human performance in their attempt to meet increased complexity.

Performance is still thought of as a quality on a spectrum of linear progress. This is akin to transforming your organization’s design into a living, self-managing system, but continuing to your treat employees (i.e. those accomplishing the work of the organization) as though they’re working a production line. This thinking is exemplified in the continued prevalence of the skills matrix.

In order for organizations to realize their goals in increasingly complex environments, they need to move beyond a model of performance, skillset, and mindset based on discrete skills in linear progression. Instead, we need to match our thinking, understanding, and development of performance with the increased complexity we face.

Undercurrent’s Skills Matrix

We’ve worked with skills matrices across legacy organizations including Pepsico, American Express, and General Electric and it may surprise you that the skills matrix used at our previous firm, the progressive but now defunct, Undercurrent, wasn’t much different. Here is a late version of Undercurrent’s skills matrix:

(Thanks CPJ)

This example of the skills matrix is an advancement of 8 competencies of an employee or member, across 9 progressive levels. To Undercurrent’s credit, our competency progression was understood as nonlinear and it was recognized that people don’t maintain or develop a discrete competency, like in some robotic fashion. For example, you can be more competent in some domains than others. But even while appreciating the nonlinear dimension of skill development, the thinking in practice went something like “in aggregate you’re a level ___” when we hired or gave a raise to an individual. That is to say, in practice we lost the nuance of the nonlinear.

While a competency model is important to direct attention to employees’, managers’ or members’ observable and manifest skills, knowledge, and ability to accomplish work to particular standards, it is vitally important to note that behavioral competencies or skills are a byproduct of nonlinear or discontinuous development.

What makes competencies nonlinear is human development, which you won’t find by totaling people’s skills.We are simply more complex than that.

Just like you won’t identify a whole tree by counting its constituent parts — leaves, limbs, bark, trunk, roots — you won’t be able to identify an effective model of human performance by merely adding up someones competencies.

While we didn’t feel Undercurrent related to us like a dismembered tree (maybe as an ant in a colony on rare occasions) we did find that the skills matrix limited our people practices in major ways. Like legacy organizations, in practice, Undercurrent viewed people’s development as implicit and it was not seriously taken into account as it related to evaluating performance and skill progression. This was particularly problematic since we were operating as a Holacracy.

The performance models which will define 21st century organizations will account for holistic, measurable, and discontinuous competencies through understanding cognitive and socio-emotional adult development.

Redesigning the Skills Matrix

In order to redesign the skills matrix, first and foremost, we must build a relationship between the complexity of work and the development of the person responsible for that work.

It is popular to speak about complexity, but what does it mean? One measurable way to understand complexity is on an individual level based upon someone’s cognitive developmental profile.

What you can observe in someone’s cognitive developmental profile is a discontinuous progression of conceptual complexity. Simply, as people mature in adulthood they grow their ability to manage greater varieties of complexity.

For example, a child in one stage of their life understands their routine of getting ready for bed as singular events — bathing, brushing teeth, tucking in, story — at a later stage the child will understand these events as the concept of bedtime. Similarly, adults go through radical transformation in their relationship to concepts like work and organization. These concepts, like bedtime for children, grow in their complexity for adults. In our developmental process we are ordering and reordering concepts at various levels of conceptual complexity. We do this in order to manage the task complexity we face — in the bedroom or in the boardroom. This happens through a discontinuous progression of hierarchical conceptual complexity.

For example, dealing with customer service issues in a call center is different than considering the geo-political position of a multinational organization. To successfully accomplish each task requires managing complexity at different levels. It is this reality of managing complexity at various levels that needs to be taken seriously, down at the level of an employee’s developmental capability and potential.

When we start interpreting complexity in this way, we begin to realize that it is very much a performance issue. If we can measure the complexity of work task and cognitive development at varying levels throughout an organization, then we can truly begin to think about how to design an organization to productively deal with the internal and external conditions of complexity it is facing in today’s marketplace. But wait, it is also skills based! While complexity is an important variable to account for, there are real competencies necessary to accomplish a task.

Here is a brief example of how we think about a skills matrix that is able to account for the three factors we’ve discussed in this article: task complexity; discontinuous or nonlinear development; and skills and/or competencies.

At Nature of Work, we believe organizations that desire high-performing teams need to rethink their approach. They need to move beyond behavioral and psychological models and reconfigure performance to include adult development. As humans are tasked to perform to higher standards in more complex environments, 21st century organizations must make it an imperative to evolve their understanding of growth, learning, and development.

This is not about another off site, training exercise, or participatory decision-making process. Those things can be great, but we are talking about reconstituting the organization from the inner developmental realities of its people. And matching those realities with the types of work that need to get accomplished. This is the only way we’ll ever be able to actually tackle the increasing complexity we face in the economy today.

Rather than working off of a Skills Matrix, we start our work with quantitative and qualitative measures focused on uncovering the complexity of work demands and the cognitive development at varying levels of the organization. (We do this through exploratory and revelatory group and one-on-one experiences.) From this empirically reliable basis, we help leaders reconstruct things like the Skills Matrix in the context of their larger organization development and design efforts.

When we can truly begin to think about how to design an organization to meet internal and external conditions of complexity, we open ourselves to think about how work can become a better environment for our growth in adulthood.

This is because of the complexity we’re now facing in our work lives, not despite it. Work in the 21st century can become an emancipatory environment for our adult lives if we unbind the left over chains of the 20th century.