Steven Forth is a Co-Founder of TeamFit. See his Skill Profile.

 

“Let’s get rid of jobs and give everyone a portfolio of projects.”

This is the advice Roger Martin gave at the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference in New York in early November (you can read more about the ideas shared in this conference in the accompanying eBook). It brings into focus an important point about the changing nature of work.

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In most cases, jobs are defined as a set of roles and tasks and skills are aligned with these. Much effort is invested in the design of these jobs and how they fit into hierarchies within the organization. High performing companies look for skill gaps at the organizational and individual levels and take steps to cover them (see Covering skill gaps – swapping, shuffling, skilling).

As Roger Martin points out, this is not how most knowledge workers organize their work these days. In his Harvard Business Review article Rethinking the Decision Factory, knowledge work is not like industrial work. We do not have a set of tasks that we repeat over and over again. Instead, we have a set of challenges to address, goals to achieve and new concepts we need to learn and apply. Rather than thinking of work as jobs in a hierarchy where a set of tasks are performed, it is more productive to think of work as a set of projects, done with different teams, over varying time scales.

How does work change if we think of it as a portfolio of projects?

First, we need to recognize that there are two very different types of projects – goal seeking and goal meeting. Goal seeking projects are often the most strategic. The ‘goal’ of these projects is to understand what goals the person or group should pursue. This is difficult work, but it is central to leadership and innovation. Projects with specific goals are more common and what most people think of when they think about project management.

Some projects are done by teams others by individuals. I can have my own one-person projects that I am working on. The teams may be fairly stable, moving from project to project together, or they may be pulled together just once, for a specific purpose.

There are projects that repeat over the course of work and that fit well known patterns, others that may show up only once in a career. Some of these projects will be short lived, others will take months or even years to bring to completion.

Projects can be holistic or they may be broken down into many modules, more or less well organized.

Work in a project-centric world has many new challenges. Most of us will have to work on more than one project at a time and we will struggle to balance priorities and organize our time. The projects will often include new team members that we will have to learn how to work with. There will be persistent tensions between our individual goals, the team’s goals and the organization’s goals. These are not naturally in alignment. Work in a project-based world will be a juggling act.

All these different project dimensions (goal seeing vs. goal meeting, individual or team, repeated or one off, holistic or structured, long term or short term) mean that most of us will have a diverse portfolio of projects over our careers. The key word here is portfolio, we should manage our projects as a portfolio of opportunities.

What are the characteristics of a good portfolio?

If our careers are going to become a portfolio of projects, what should that portfolio look like? I suggest we organize our project portfolios around three dimensions:

  • Risk/Reward – We will want to have some projects that are high risk and high reward and others that our more predictable. We need to avoid projects that have high risk and little reward. There are many types of risk and reward to think about. It is not always the financial risks that are most important. In some cases, the reward may be new skills and new personal connections.
  • Timescale – If we are going to be working on multiple projects it is a good idea to have them on different timescales. Have some projects that extend over a long period of time, years even. Have others that can be completed quickly.
  • Diversity – Have a number of different types of projects underway at any one time. Make sure you are working with a diverse group of people who can challenge you, help you to learn and who have skills that complement and connect with your own.

The risk of project-based work is that all these projects will be less than the sum of their parts. It is easy to get pulled in too many different directions so that your career does not make sense to yourself or to anyone else. A good project portfolio should also tell a story about who you are and who you want to be in the world.

Try making a list of the projects you have been on over the past three years (you can do this again using different timeframes, but three years if often a good place to start). Characterize the projects by comparing the goals, timelines, project management approach, the people on the team and so on. Can you organize these projects so that they tell a story?

As work changes how we manage our skills needs to change

Your skills and potential skills can also be thought of as a portfolio. A good skill portfolio has many of the characteristics of a good project portfolio. As skills are largely developed through project work this is a good thing. Consider the following:

  • Life skills vs. short-term skills – Some skills once developed can last a long time. We could call these ‘bicycle skills’ (‘once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget’). Other skills can have a very short half life, and can decay quickly if not used. Other skills become less relevant over time as the environment changes. This is true of some technical skills, especially in fields that are advancing quickly. One way that TeamFit gets at this is through the skill category Foundational Skills. These are the skills that we use to acquire other skills. A good skill portfolio will have a strong set of these skills.
  • Skill diversity – The complexity of work today means that most of us will need a diverse set of skills. TeamFit gives insight into this by categorizing skills into Foundational, Social, Technical, Design, Tool, Business and Domain skills. We should all have at least some skills in all of these categories. Within a category like Technical skills or Business skills, we will probably want to have two or three skill clusters (a skill cluster is a group of connected skills that are often used together).
  • Complementary and connecting skills – Given that so much project work is done with other people, we have to take our teammates into account as we design our own portfolios. The way to do this is with complementary and connecting skills. Complementary skills are those that two or more different people use together to accomplish a larger goal. Any sports team will give you many examples of complementary skills, from the quarterback and receiver in American football to the trimmer and the helmsman on a racing sailboat. Connecting skills are the skills that let us understand and work with people from different disciplines. They are specific to small groups of individuals. Our research suggests that connecting skills are critical to team performance.

To succeed in project-based organizations, take some time to think about your skills as a portfolio. One place to begin is to look at how your skills are distributed across different categories. Ask if you have a good balance across this different categories. Your skills should be balanced over time as well. You should have some skills that you expect to continue to use for many years, others that are at their peak and will soon become less valuable to you, and others that you are cultivating for the future. Build your skills in clusters and try not to have too many clusters or you will find it difficult to excel.

Finally, your skill portfolio has to connect to the people you work with. Sit down in small groups and talk about how your skills connect with your colleagues and how that could change as each of you develops new skills. Your skill portfolio should connect your past to your future and your own work to that of your colleagues.