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Using a Skill Matrix for Growth and Learning

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Skill matrixes support self organization in teams and help to create intrinsic motivation where people want to learn new things. They can show how cross-functional teams really function and provide insight into bottlenecks found in teams.

Jeremy Naus, freelance agile coach at Co-Learning, and Annelies de Meyere, facilitator, trainer and agile coach at Co-Learning, facilitated a session about the four levels of the skill matrix at the XP Days Benelux 2016. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

The room was divided into teams for the session, where all teams had the assignment to think about what would be needed to fully rebuild the XP Days website, including the front end, back end and all services. Every team consisted of five members, and each team member was given a role description describing the skills that they had.

In the first exercise, teams had to write down the technical skills needed to do the job on sticky notes. Next, they had to identify the eight most important skills. This raised some questions within the teams on what is most important and why, but in the end they agreed upon the skills that are needed.

The teams created a matrix on a flip chart, with a row for each team member and columns for the skills, ordered from left to right based on importance. Next, they filled out the matrix by putting a check mark in the cells when a team member possessed a specific skill based on their role description. This is what the facilitators called a first level skill matrix.

Naus and De Meyere asked the teams to look at the matrix and share what they got out of it. People mentioned that there where duplicate skills, possessed by multiple team members. They noticed that there was one team member who had many skills; teams considered it a risk should that team member became unavailable due to whatever reason. It also became clear that some skills were lacking. The facilitators asked teams to think about how to solve the problem, which triggered discussions on training, pairing, and other means to acquire skills. People said it was hard to define concrete actions based on the limited information in the matrix.

The facilitators explained what was lacking in the matrix. With only a tick mark you can’t know if someone is a novice or has only limited experience, said De Meyere. You need to get insight into the level of the skills of the team members.

For the second level skill matrix, teams had the assignment to add the skill level based on "Shu Ha Ri". Depending on if a team member is learning the skill, has advanced skills, or is a master, they would score the skill level as 1, 2 or 3. A 0 was used if a team member had no knowledge. This is a level two skill matrix, said Naus.

Adding the skill level provides additional insight. Situations became clear where several team members had a skill, but no one had profound knowledge. In their first level skill matrix, this didn’t appear as a gap, but now it became clear that it actually was. Another team mentioned that where areas the first level skills matrix suggested that they had too many members with a specific skill, they were now seing that there is one expert and some trainees, which is actually a postivie situation.

To create the third level skill matrix, teams were asked to indicate in which areas team members wanted to learn new skills. In the matrix they should write a 0 if a team member didn’t want to learn a skill, and a 1 if they want to learn it. Teams said that this helped to make bottlenecks clear. Several teams mentioned that they lacked a skill which nobody was willing to learn. In one team, a member decided that he didn’t want to learn anything, which is OK.

To make a level four skill matrix, teams had to discuss how good they felt about team members possessing specific skills, again using "Shu Ha Ri" levels. Although this helps to get more insight into the skills that a team has, it could be scary to do this in real life, said De Meyere. There is a risk teams will score higher and become over confident about what they can do. Naus mentioned that it can become popularity contest, which wouldn’t help to get objective insight into the team's skills.

De Meyere mentioned that you should check the matrix at regular times, for instance in the agile retrospective, to see if things change and to decide which skills the team needs to work on.

Your backlog is a great source of information regarding the skills that are needed. Don’t forget to check the skills and prioritize them based on your backlog, said De Meyere.

InfoQ spoke with Jeremy Naus and Annelies de Meyere after their session about using skill matrices with cross-functional agile teams, how to increase learning with skill matrices, and the benefits that skill matrices can bring.

InfoQ: What is a skill matrix?

Jeremy Naus: A skill matrix is a table that helps a team understand what skills are possessed by which team members. The columns are the skills, where the first column contains the name of the team member. The cells in the row for a team member have a mark/score for the skills of that team member.

Annelies de Meyere: The origin of the skill matrix lies in Lean. As you know, the first principle of Lean is to minimize waste. The original grid (what I call "level 1") allows to visualize whether there are duplicate skills or skill gaps in a team.

InfoQ: In which ways can you use skill matrices with cross-functional agile teams?

Naus: It will actually show how cross-functional the teams are. It will show if there are gaps preventing the team to be truly cross-functional.

De Meyere: The skill matrices allow for a lot of insight. Not only skill gaps can be identified, but you can see whether there are skill duplicates, who might be interested to expand their knowledge in certain skills, and who can be a potential bottleneck in the team for certain types of work items. All of this together allows better team planning and helps you in finding out who are the "T-shaped" or even "π-shaped" persons in the team, the truly cross-functional team members.

InfoQ: How can you use skill matrices to increase learning?

Naus: At level 3 of the Skill Matrix team members can show what their goal is for a certain skill (become better, stay at current level, no longer interested). So if person A wants to become better in skill X, and we see that person B is an expert in skill X, we can have the two work together to improve person A’s skill in X. So in short it enables matching team members to increase learning.

De Meyere: It will visualize the intrinsic motivation of specific team members to either be a mentor or to be trained in certain skills, and learning can then be focused or done in a different way. Pairing up and actually working with someone who is truly interested vs. mob sessions where half the team is twiddling their thumbs and true results are hard to find.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that a skill matrix can bring to a team? And to the whole organization?

Naus: At level 3 it will clearly show ambitions (in skills) of each team member. This helps the organization to see interests of team members and decide in what kind of training they should invest.
Organizations can also use the skill matrix with all of their teams to look for patterns or find out if there are people who might have a better fit (skill-wise) with another team.

De Meyere: The organization can benefit in multiple ways. For example, when hiring for new teams: prepare blank skill matrices for the value flows for which teams need to be created. The hiring of agile teams can get a whole new dimension, where you ask candidates to fill in this skill matrix and use this information for a final selection, making sure that the teams are cross-functional, eager to grow and learn and fit into an agile environment of continuous improvement. Don’t forget: also soft skills can be included into a skill matrix. Afterwards one can use their personal skill matrix to track their own growth path within the team, making the "fuzzy" career path of agile team members a lot more tangible.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about skill matrices, where can they go?

Naus: Annelies has written an excellent post about the four levels of the skill matrix on our Co-Learning website.

De Meyere. We designed the workshop for XP Days Benelux so that attendees can go and create their own matrices in their team or organization. Also, Management 3.0 uses a Competency Matrix as one of the Management Workout exercises. And you will definitely encounter skill matrices when studying Lean practices.

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