Leveling Up & Leveling Out: Assessing Your Team's Skills

by on June 19, 2009

Building strong teams has always been important to me. Over the years I’ve had successes and failures and spent a lot of time reflecting on the ins and outs of attracting, motivating, and growing talented developers. Major influences in my thinking have come from Joel Spolsky (Smart and Gets Things Done)  and George Leonard (Mastery), Marcus Buckingham (First, Break All The Rules), and most recently Andy Hunt (Pragmatic Thinking & Learning).

In Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Andy Hunt provides an overview of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. The Dreyfus model is a cross disciplinary study of technical people and their skill levels. The results of the study call out specific skill levels and identify the characteristics of people at each level. I’ve listed some highlights below and bolded the characteristic that I think best exemplifies someone at a particular level:

Novice – “Just tell me what you want me to do.”

  • rigid adherence to rules
  • no discretional judgment
  • does not feel or accept responsibility for outcomes

Advanced Beginner “I’m ready for my next task.”

  • lacks perception of big picture or larger context is seen as irrelevant,
  • all situations are treated with equal priority.
  • still does not feel responsible for outcomes
  • rules can be applied situationally

Competent“I’ll have it done by the end of the day.”

  • still follows rules but begins to encounter and cope with crowding and conflicts (multiple activities, information, rules)
  • begins to explore the reasoning behind rules
  • sees actions as part of larger, long term goals
  • forms deliberate, organized plans
  • feeling of responsibility begins to arise from active decision making

According to the Dreyfus study, most people don’t get beyond Competent at most skills. There’s just no need or not enough challenge in a particular activity once our goals are met. To go beyond this level requires dedication and concerted effort to get better. In other words, it’s time to go pro!

Proficient - “The XYZ pattern can solve that problem perfectly.”

  • can distinguish important elements of a situation and ignore irrelevant details
  • can learn from the experience of others (e.g. case studies)
  • uses pattern recognition and past experience to identify a problem and maxims (as opposed to rules) to solve them
  • intuition begins to take over for rules

Expert (aka Master or Wizard) - “Did you need anything else?”

  • no longer reliant upon rules, pattern recognition and maxims are baked-in
  • can formulate possible outcomes and future visions of what is possible
  • can very quickly establish an intuitive grasp the situation and solve problems seemingly without effort

I’ve quickly come to love this model for its clarity. It cleanly describes the increasing scope of awareness and how experience gets baked into our consciousness. It provides a discrete set of criteria upon which to assess the current skill set of our teams and more importantly, it’s actionable. We can plot the next steps to our team improve and grow.

If you’re involved in decisions related to team management it behooves you to take a moment to asses your team members and build a quick skill level inventory based on the criteria above. Based on that inventory you can begin taking action. Stay tuned for part 2 where I will share some thoughts on optimizing the team lineup.


June 22. 2009 07:51


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June 26. 2009 21:16


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July 11. 2009 06:27


Yes, there are many different ways, but I think the main thing is that all team members clearly know their objectives.


July 28. 2009 12:04

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