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An Agile Talent Development and Adaptive Career Framework


We all know that our employees are our greatest source of innovation, create customer value and represent our brand to the world.Their engagement and collaboration is vital to the growth , performance and adaptability required to survive in today’s fierce business environment.

We invest in designing physical workspaces and team rooms to create an environment conducive to collaboration and communication and leverage the latest technologies and tools to deal with the constraints of distance and distributed teams – but sidestep the critical task of replacing dysfunctional performance management systems, antiquated job families and limiting career paths that undermine the effectiveness of our teams and compromise the health of our culture.

It’s time to invest in our people and implement an adaptive framework and supporting infrastructure to create an organizational culture that optimizes engagement and a continuous, sustainable, flow of innovative talent. 

This paper offers some new ways of thinking and ideas on how to create the infrastructure to attract, retain and optimize a strong talent pipeline. 

1. Introduction

Can you recall the first day on your current job?  Remember that sense of energy?  How important it felt for you to have an opportunity to demonstrate your unique talents to your new team and discover how you could contribute and really  make a difference? 

Now fast forward to today. 

What happened?

2. Reality Check

We inherently know that individuals are the ultimate source of value and understand that one of our highest responsibilities as an Agile leader is to create a “safe” working environment where everyone can unleash their creativity and innovation , grow to their full potential and really make a difference.  The benefits of demonstrating  authentic servant leadership, providing a clear line of sight to the organizations strategic vision, and developing a high trust empowering environment will wither in the shadow of legacy performance management systems that enforce stack ranking and foster toxic, dreaded annual “performance reviews” with all sorts of unintended consequences. (The August 2012 Vanity Fair article on “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” provides an in-depth case study: see this link).

The level of collaboration that is vital to sustain a high performing, self-organizing agile team cannot thrive or even survive in an  environment that pits people against each other  Focus is diverted from sustainable excellence and optimal customer value to high profile short term wins and gaining political favor.  Learning that should be focused on knowledge sharing, competency, community  and skill building is diverted to self-preservation, self-advocacy and self-promoting.  Innovation, collaboration, team morale and engagement wanes as individuals shut down (into “duck and cover” mode) or leave.

Daniel Pink has conducted extensive research which indicates that “The modern workplaces’ most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and disregard for mastery.  Gallup’s extensive research on the subject shows that in the US, more than 50% of employees are not engaged at work and nearly 20% are actively disengaged.”   

The correlation between performance and engagement is clear.  “Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.  They drive innovation and move the organization forward.”  The world’s top performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives performance outcomes.  In the best organizations, engagement is more than a human resources initiative – it is a strategic foundation for the very way they do business.”  Gallup

3. Our Success Begins and Ends with our People

“More companies are discovering that an uber-connected workplace is not just about implementing a new set of tools – it is also about embracing a cultural shift to create an open environment where employees are encouraged to share, innovate, and collaborate virtually.” Karie Willyerd & Jeanne C. Meister,                    

Just like you felt on that first day of work, every employee needs to feel empowered, connected, valued and in control of their destiny. Empowered individuals will not only increase organizational performance, they will find new and innovative solutions and better ways to work, organizing resources differently, up-skilling themselves and diffusing knowledge throughout the organization.

Imagine a self-organized and empowered workforce where talent and problems find each other; letting the network of expertise in the enterprise self-optimize. Just-in-time knowledge sharing and continuous learning generate competitive advantages and cultivate change. Innovation and growth emerge out of informal structures and  trusted, personal relationships in the organization’s social network …learning and sharing knowledge continuously.  

Contrast that vision with today’s reality and how we currently deploy resources. We find an idea, create a project, assign people dynamically (augmenting liberally with external contractors (with a myriad of unintended, disruptive consequences to a cohesive team) because our demand always exceeds our capacity). Some may be the  best people for the job…but most aren’t. More often than not, based on the complexity of our work environments, some insights, perhaps critical to the project’s success, are locked away in other people’s minds, in other divisions, maybe even in other departments or in other organizations if we lost the only talent who had the critical domain knowledge.

4. Bold Agenda

Start with a bold agenda and strategy to attract, engage, develop and retain talent – supported by the courage to detox the culture, create space for collaboration and innovation and replace antiquated job families, and dysfunctional career paths and performance management systems with an adaptive career framework.

As organizations, early in our Agile transformation we recognized the value of open flows of communication and collocated teams and tore down the cube walls to create effective team space. It’s time to remember what’s really important and take the next step to shatter the glass ceilings and walls (and floors), and start investing in our talent. It’s time to really prioritize people above process.

A good place to start:

4.0 A clear and compelling vision supported by strong leadership role modeling values to create a culture of high trust, openness, responsibility, collaboration and engagement

4.1 Reframe recruiting strategy to recruit for potential, curiosity and empathy (vs. “heavy” experience which will soon be outdated)

4.2  Invest in onboarding – starting with your current talent. Ensure everyone has the tools to discover their strengths and their passion;  develop their core competencies and a career coach to help them explore and co-create opportunities that stretch their talent and strengthen their uniquely individual brand

4.3 Replace silo’d and antiquated job families and broken career ladders with career mosaics

4.4 Career Ownership and Co creating opportunities via continuous career planning, development and learning opportunities as your organization evolves to self-organization and holocracy (a social technology for agile and purposeful organizational governance (

4.5 Understand and leverage the 70:20:10 learning model by providing just-in-time access to knowledge (10%); environment and tools to support knowledge sharing, strong communities of practices and on-demand coaches (20%) and rich opportunities for continuous, hands-on learning via pairing, job sharing, frequent job rotations, mentors and coaches (70%).

4.6 Abandon the dreaded annual performance reviews (NOW!) and replace with continuous 360 degree feedback loops and fair, equitable, honest and transparent performance management

5. Leadership with a Clear and Compelling Vision:

A clear, simple compelling vision helps our teams focus and align – and  find the most direct path to value and translate strategic goals or critical priorities into their day-to-day work. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps each team member align their personal goals and feel recognized for the unique value they contribute. A compelling vision inspires each team member with a greater sense of purpose and pride in both contributing and benefiting from being part of a strong, winning team.

Strong and effective leadership is needed to ensure robust dialogue and open, honest communication channels. It’s also needed to create an environment of trust and high tolerance for risk (which is critical for innovation). Leaders need to ask the tough, incisive questions,  focus on the right problems and remove organizational blockers to  make sure the team has what they need to solve them. Leaders also need to be intimately and intensely involved with supporting their teams and passionate about results, as well as demonstrate the courage to fully empower their teams to self-organize, adapt, fail quickly and recover (creating the safe-to-fail environment) and learn. Effective leaders are role models for agile values and generate energy through their integrity and behavior.

6. Recruit for Potential and Empathy:

High performing Agile organizations are clear and concise on their recruiting strategy:  they hire for empathy and involve the team in hiring decisions. They understand the pace of technology change and hire for curiosity, learning ability and collaboration and not around a specific set of skills – knowing that through daily pair rotations, the “right” talent will rapidly pick up the critical skills and domain knowledge on the job, pairing with domain experts.

Obviously resumes are pre-screened for critical technical, engineering and any critical specialized skills but the interviewing and hiring processes prioritize potential over experience. This approach naturally expands the talent pool to include the broad spectrum of potential talent (from recent graduates to retirees)  with fresh perspectives to build a strong talent bench.

Some organizations pair candidates during the interview process to “test” their collaboration vs. competitiveness throughout the interview process (simulating high stress conditions). Candidates who demonstrate support and collaboration with their competition are hired for their high degree of empathy and teamwork.

7. Invest in Onboarding:

It’s surprising how little attention is focused on the critical first 90 days of an employee’s career. All too often, the employee is “glamored” with a one or two day “welcome” program that is more show than substance. They meet the executives (who they will never see again) and learn about the founders and cultural ideals and then thrown into the whitewater where they are expected to learn to swim on their own.

It takes six months to fully understand the new environment and assimilate successfully, which can be disruptive to the new hire, the team and organization. Effective onboarding is focused on both the new hire, and the team, with the hiring manager providing tools and resources to turn the new hire’s energy and excitement into positive, productive action for everyone. These tools include strength finding self-assessments, comprehensive learning opportunities, a coach, a mentor and peer coaches. The foundational development program will provide a rich orientation, career development plan and just in time learning resources which might include self-study, e-learning, coaching circles, mentors and a support group with other new hires as well as a facilitated workshop with their new team to update team working agreements in support of the new team member.

8. Build Career Mosaics:

Tearing down silo’d job families and reassembling key competencies, skills, knowledge and experience into a loosely coupled career mosaic organized around differentiating skills, competencies and knowledge with clear “excellence” profiles, advancement criteria, success metrics and role-based value propositions. This takes analytical rigor and discipline but is a critical first step in creating an adaptive career framework. The benefits are transformational and lay the foundation for effective performance management and creating a value focused culture.

How it works:

8.1 Value Propositions  -  just asking the question:  how do we -  as (fill in the blank:  domain architects,  PM’s, QA Engineers, etc.)  create value for  the organization will reframe their focus from tasks to value.

8.2 Differentiating competencies. Continue the conversation by  identifying the core competencies,  technical skills, knowledge and experience needed to create value. Using this information, rewrite outdated job descriptions to provide value focused role clarity.

8.3  Review related job families to look for opportunities to combine around core competencies and value generation. This will simplify and reduce the total number of job families into career groups, and create career mosaics with intersection points to related career groups.

8.4 For each career group, develop an Excellence Profile with clear and simple definitions of excellence at every level (i.e. PM  or QA Engineer I, II, III, IV and V) for each of the key skills, knowledge areas and competencies needed in the role.

 8.5  Update the Excellence Profiles with advancement criteria to help individual team members understand and set realistic expectations on how to advance from one level of their career to the next – either up or across the career mosaic….highlighting opportunities for career acceleration.

9. Career Ownership and Co-Creating Opportunities

“Career Ownership” is a dynamic partnership between an employee and manager that facilitates empowerment, responsibility, organizational learning and career growth. Your mental model shifts from singular “career events” moving up a “career ladder” to a continuous journey…where the employee is the driver and the manager is the navigator providing valuable mentoring, coaching and advocacy. One of the most important roles of the manager is to provide honest constructive feedback and create stretch assignments,  which promote advancement and growth opportunities.

10. 70:20:10 Learning Model

How did you become knowledgeable and successful at your current job? Chances are you developed your skills through practice and dealing with daily job challenges experiencing  in-the-moment learning. The greater the challenges and more complex the problems, and the more novel the situation -  the greater your learning. 

Roughly 70% of our learning happens realtime – on the job. 20% comes from the benefit of working closely with,  and learning from role models, experts, communities of practice and peers who know more about a specific topic or domain area than we do. And 10% of our leaning comes from formal classroom training, e-learning, reading, workshops, conferences etc.  Interesting that most organizations invest their focus and limited learning and development budget on the 10%.

11. Adaptive Performance Management

Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s was outspoken in his strong reservations about performance management systems:  “In practice, annual ratings are a disease, annihilating long term planning, demobilizing teamwork, nourishing rivalry and politics, leaving people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.” (Out of the Crisis, 2000, page 102; referenced in this link).

If you polled your peers and colleagues, it’s likely they would agree with Deming: performance management processes and systems are seriously broken. Annual evaluations are generally demotivating and focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. At best, they distract us from focusing on delivering customer value and generally result in negative behavior which could compromise team effectiveness and organizational health. 

So what’s the solution? Where do we begin? If  you’re already exploring or committed to any of the referenced suggestions, you’re already on your way. If not… might consider:

  1. Invest in training and coaching managers to incorporate performance and career conversations in weekly 1:1’s and ensure that  leadership development, career coaching and frequent recognition, praise, and both constructive and  positive feedback with their direct reports are part of their performance and are rewarded.
  2. Invest in career coaches and coaching circles and workshops to  ensure all team members have a chance to create learning as well as career development plans; along with frequent opportunities to continuously discover, learn, develop, innovate and grow. Look for innovative,  big visible ways  to measure organizational health around this goal.
  3. Incorporate big visible measures that track  opportunities, engagement, stretch assignments, learning, volunteering, job rotations. Consider climate surveys, or inviting team members to track % time in “flow”, or ROTI (return on time investment) feedback … continuously looking for ways to improve feedback loops and continuous learning.
  4. Expand team working agreements to include discussions around creating opportunities to align work, passion and strengths; or opportunities to determine team performance measurement criteria, holistic (360) measures and how they want to measure and demonstrate team productivity and team based rewards, team performance bonuses, and related incentives.
  5. Invoke  the Hippocratic Oath (“Do No  Harm”) and start a conversation with your IT leadership or HR business partners to craft a short term solution for fair and equitable extrinsic rewards (i.e. equitable pay for individual and team performance and short and long term incentives with focus on opportunities)…while you collaborate on a long term solution. Chances are they are aware of the hazards of the current performance system and processes – but lack sufficient time, energy or resources to initiate a change. Work together to  find ways to  minimize the damage while working under the existing constraints.

12. Conclusion: 

The increasing complexity and fierce competition in today’s business environment create a compelling call-to-action re: investing in effective talent development. The solutions we will need to find are (and will be) outside our current toolkit and will  require new levels of critical thinking and a razor-like focus on creating value and eliminating waste. We’ll need to learn and adapt in real time.

An organization’s ability to innovate, attract, develop and retain talent is critical. The good news is that the individual capabilities we invest in will grow into organizational capabilities which are vital for sustainability and  resilience in the face of increasing change. 

“You need not see what someone is doing to  know if it’s his vocation, you have only to watch his eyes: a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon making a primary incision, a clerk completing a bill of landing, wear the same rapt expression, forgetting themselves in a function how beautiful it is, that eye-on-the object look.”  W. H. Auden

About the Author

Pat Reed has been solving technology problems, designing and delivering cutting edge solutions, developing leaders, teaching and driving transformational change for over 35 years. Throughout her career leading Business Technology Solutions, Pat has leveraged Lean Agile Project Management and Software Development principles and practices in the Mental Health, Criminal Justice, Criminal Intelligence, Entertainment, eCommerce & Retail Industries. For the past 8 years as Sr. Director of IT at Gap Inc., she led IT Strategic Planning, Global PMO, Portfolio Management, Risk and Vendor Management and IT Finance at Gap and her accomplishments include developing an Agile Portfolio Management capability, an Agile Accounting model and world class adaptive career management framework and earning a prestigious leadership award. Pat recently branched out as an Entrepreneur creating an Agile Consulting practice at iHoriz with a focus on Enterprise Agility Consulting and Coaching. She also teaches Agile Management classes at UC Bekeley extension in the program she designed and developed and serves as a Director of the Agile Alliance on the Board of Directors and is Community Leader of PMI's Agile Community of Practice, which she co-founded; and serves on the Executive Council of the Agile Leadership Network.

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