Capability

Building a progression framework for a multidisciplinary organisation

A depiction of overlapping disciplines
Reading Time: 6 minutes

I recently had the opportunity to work with the awesome people at Citizens Advice, guiding them in creating a capability and progression framework for the newly formed design, data and technology (DDaT) function. Being a forward-thinking organisation, they were open to trying something a bit different; this post describes the approach I used to help them do that.

“I found this approach incredibly valuable because of how it shifted our focus from uniqueness to community. Too often skills frameworks become a way for teams to count the ways in which they are special and different from anyone else in their department or organisation — but Emily’s new approach pulled our conversations in the opposite direction.“

Giulia Merlo, Head of User Research & Design at Citi, from her blog

Progression frameworks help people understand the organisation’s expectations of their role and how to progress and grow at work. I have been working with professional capability development for a while, including being a Head of Role, contributing to the UK government Digital, Data and Technology Profession Capability Framework, helping clients hire and leading on initiatives to help grow capability internally. I used this experience to apply to creating this progression framework approach.

I worked closely with Giulia Merlo at Citizens Advice to understand the needs of their DDaT function. These needs echo what I have seen in other similar organisations; they were to:

  • Understand which capabilities they have (and need) 
  • Be able to offer clearer opportunities to people for career progression and personal development
  • Bring their teams and people together
  • Create the detail to be useful for people in this function while fitting into cross-organisational work outside of the function at a less detailed view

Many organisations have a version of the Citizens Advice DDaT function, where multi-disciplinary teams work together to create user-focused digital products and services. It is particularly prevalent in UK government departments, popularised by Government Digital Service. Within these functions, there are highly specialised people with many different fields of expertise and as many job titles working together in these teams.

Creating career progression frameworks that consider job roles in isolation from each other doesn’t reflect how people work or progress through their careers, so I wanted to take a more holistic approach.

Roles are not constrained to one discipline

I am using the term discipline here to describe a field of expertise. Roles or job titles are often used interchangeably with disciplines; in reality, the most effective teams have blurred lines between what people do; they have a whole team responsible for outcomes and work together to achieve them. So, for example, a user researcher (role) doesn’t just do user research (discipline); they may do some product design, product management or front end development, dependent on their experience and the context of their team and organisation.

Career paths are rarely linear

If you are anything like many other people, including me, your career path is not linear like a ladder or zig-zagged like a climbing wall. I have a masters in fine art and started my working life as an arts event producer, which is not a traditional route into agile consultancy. Most people don’t start in one role and stick to just that throughout their whole career. Yet often, career paths are designed as if they do.

People have a unique mix of skills and experiences 

Our varied backgrounds, interests and career journeys mean people have different skill sets, even when compared to someone with the same job title; this is an asset; people bring their own perspectives to a role, and teams blend these to solve their unique problems. 

A good progression framework needs to be flexible enough to support individuals’ uniqueness while helping them understand how they fit in their role.

Thinking about the whole

My approach to creating a progression framework considers roles in the context of the disciplines it regularly interacts with, together with enough flexibility for the uniqueness of individuals —essentially considering the whole function together rather than a set of discrete pathways.

Creating the framework

With this approach to creating a progression framework, there are a few things I want to achieve; the first is to put roles in the context of all disciplines it regularly interacts with and to understand disciplines in the context of the outcomes that they achieve.

Roles in the context of disciplines

The first step is gathering a high-level, one-sentence description of each of the disciplines and then use that to start understanding the roles. For example:

Infrastructure engineering: Supporting, managing and maintaining the core infrastructure that underpins production services.

With Citizens Advice, I lead a group of people through a collaborative workshop, using these descriptions to create an early draft profile for each role in the function, showing how different each role level encompasses the disciplines described using five capability levels.

These conversations allowed the heads to make connections between roles and be explicit about what disciplines exist in the function.

Showing the levels of awareness, novice, competent, proficient and expert. With increasing complexity and responsibility

The five capability levels that I use, Awareness, Novice, Competent, Proficient and Expert, that increase in complexity and responsibility

I set the expectation that all roles should have a minimum of ‘awareness’ of all other disciplines to encourage a shared understanding of the function.  For example, a delivery manager should be aware of infrastructure engineering because there would be nowhere to put services without it.

Showing the delivery manager role with different role levels and coloured bars to indicate how the role includes different capability levels of each discipline
A shortened excerpt of what a role profile might look like for an organisation

Describing disciplines in terms of outcomes

The more in-depth part of creating the framework is the detail of each discipline. I like to describe disciplines through the outcomes it achieves, where an outcome is the result or benefit of something rather than the tools, methods, or approaches used to create that result. This helps individuals have autonomy and fits my definition of capability, applying knowledge, skills, and experience to achieve an outcome.

Capability, the application of knowledge, skills and experience to achieve an outcome

For example, an outcome of good delivery management is “a Consistent, smooth pace of delivery”. There is different knowledge and skills that someone might apply to achieve that outcome.

With Citizens advice, I led several collaborative workshops to describe the disciplines as a set of capabilities. Once we had described those capabilities, we could review the role profiles and iterate them as needed.

These conversations helped people understand more about what each other do and how they fit together, which is great for joining people up and encouraging empathy for each other.

A modular and scalable approach

As the disciplines are not tied to one role, this is a modular approach. For example, being competent in product design means the same if you are a junior product designer or a senior front end developer, making it easy to read across roles. This consistency is what makes the framework scalable.

Heads of roles can then build out roles from these descriptions by pulling out the relevant descriptions of the capability levels, like this example below.

Showing a mid-weight delivery manager and the different disciplines that it includes
An example showing what a mid-weight delivery manager might look like

Respecting specialisms and encouraging collaboration

The levels have helped to describe the responsibilities that people take on as they become more senior and help teams understand who is responsible for leading in an area. For example, if someone is a senior product designer, they can be free to lead on product design. At the same time, other people can contribute to product design under their guidance without stepping on each others’ toes. Great for conversations about team responsibility.

A practical framework with a lot of uses

This approach means that people can clearly see what different role levels look like, describe their own unique set of capabilities and help them progress in whatever way they want to, including different roles.

It brings people closer together by highlighting similarities rather than focusing on differences, allowing informed conversations about team makeup and see where some people can play dual roles, keeping teams smaller and more nimble.

It helps to structure career discussions and professional development, feeds into job descriptions and hiring, and as it’s modular, it makes creating new roles easier.

If you are interested in talking about how I can help you do something similar for your organisation, please get in touch

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