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Career Progression and Goals Template - Core Competency Quadrants
This framework has proven to be effective time and time again.
I’ll preface this post with a note that you need to have a good idea of the roles and responsibilities of each level of position at your company in order for this to be effective.
If you’re at a newer company, get tight on what the differences look like between levels and how expectations change at each level. It will save you heaps of hassle in the future.
The Core Competency Quadrants
The idea is simple, you’ve got four quadrants for every chunk of learning you do in life. At any moment, you can fall into one of these four quadrants.
Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know
Conscious Incompetence: You know what you need to know, but you’re not any good at it yet (that’s okay!)
Conscious Competence: You know how to do the thing, but you need to think about it as you’re going through
Unconscious Competence: The skill becomes automatic and you don’t need to think about it
The standard progression is from Unconscious Incompetence or Conscious Competence into the other two. Generally, you learn about which areas you are unconsciously incompetent in through feedback from others, or reading books, blogs, and newsletters and realizing you’ve never heard of or tried something.
Think about your current role, where do you fall in each of the categories?
Note: Incompetent has a negative connotation, so be sure to keep in mind, and remind those you go through this exercise with, that it is acceptable to fall into the incompetence side of the quadrants, but once you’re there, the expectation is you will work to get to competence.
Fun Fact: I lost in the first round of the County Spelling Bee in grade school on the word “incompetent,” my parents couldn’t stop laughing at the irony.
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The Competency Quadrants in Practice
Once you’ve learned this framework, you can apply it to pretty much any part of your life. Learning how to draw better? Use the quadrants to find your weak spots. Learning a new language? The quadrants can help you understand which areas to spend more time in.
Let’s put this into practice.
For this part of the example, we’ll use a job posting for a VP of Engineering position at Photobooth Supply Co. I’m currently a Director of Engineering, so I like to look at VP of Engineering and CTO roles (even when I’m not actually looking for a new role) to make sure I’m on the right path skill-wise.
VP of Engineering Responsibilities (abridged):
Architecting, recruiting, and training a team to develop our product roadmap in 2023 and beyond
Craft and constantly improve upon KPIs and OKRs to increase team output
… a handful of other responsibilities …
Manage software development projects by setting requirements, goals, and timelines
Review and update policies relevant to internal systems and equipment
Assess Each Skill or Responsibility in a Vacuum
Don’t look at the whole picture yet, that’s not the point of the Competency Quadrants. We’re looking to take micro bites of a role and understand how we do in each section. For example:
Architecting, recruiting, and training a team to develop our product roadmap in 2023 and beyond
When assessing myself on this skill, I’d give myself a Consciously Competent. I’ve done all of these tasks in the past, many of them this year and last, but I still have to spend a lot of time on them. Reading it a different way, I’ve never trained a team to create a roadmap, so if that is the definition then I’m on the edge of Unconsciously Incompetent. Now that I know that is a potential skill gap, I could begin to work on it.
A few potential goals I could create off of this:
Create a framework for building out a reusable product roadmap and apply it to H2 2023 and H1 2024, evolving the framework with each use.
While creating the H2 2023 roadmap, collaborate and teach my managers how to effectively build a roadmap on their own
Follow-up goal: Oversee the creation of the H1 2024 roadmap, coaching along the way.
Skipping down a few responsibilities, we get to this one:
Manage software development projects by setting requirements, goals and timelines
This falls into the Unconsciously Competent category for me. I’ve been executing projects with milestones and requirements since I was a freelancer in 2012, and have only gotten better since. I know how to break down a project into sizable chunks, assess dependencies, obstacles, and nice-to-haves, and can pretty much do it in my sleep. That level of competence is what you’re looking for in the Unconsciously Competent quadrant.
Those are only two quick examples, but it gives you a glimpse into how effective the Competency Quadrants can be for assessing skill level. I’m on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum for the two examples, and that’s totally fine! It means I have room to grow, and that is an exciting proposition.
Note: Going through this exercise is only effective if you are honest with yourself. You should discuss this with your manager once completed to validate the results.
When To Use The Competency Quadrants
I love using this framework for goals and career advancement discussions. It takes out a lot of subjectivity and bias and focuses on the role responsibilities within the next level of career advancement.
If you do not have a clear view of what role responsibilities look like on your team, work with your HR department to get them solidified. Another good place to start is to outline what your current expectations are for each individual on your team.
Core ways I’ve used the Competency Quadrants:
Yearly performance reviews
Goal-setting for myself and my direct reports
Promotion or merit cycle letters of recommendation
Role expectation clarifying conversations
I’m sure there are additional times when the Competency Quadrants are helpful, but that’s where I’ve found the most value so far.
For this next section, it’s important to remember that this information should never be used to force rank your individuals or compare them to one another. Each bullet point should be reviewed in a vacuum and each individual should be reviewed in a vacuum as well.
“Well Alan got an Unconsciously Competent on ‘Conducting Code Reviews’ and you got Unconsciously Incompetent.” If you’re looking to sow seeds of chaos, unhealthy competition, and distress, definitely compare folks against each other.
If you’re looking to run a healthy organization (like I hope all of you are), continue to remind folks that this is not for comparative purposes, but to see, based on expectations for them in their role, where they are in their own journey.
Taking Competency Quadrants One Step Further
For those of you that are data-minded, you can translate all quadrant values into numbers to get an average score and get “one number to rule them all.” The number should be used as a quick reference only, not as a direct measurement. Context is quickly lost in numbers alone.
I never have folks directly connect numbers to the responsibility in the same sheet, because subjectivity and bias start to creep back in as you realize you have mostly 0s and 1s.
Instead, have each responsibility as a line item, with a dropdown for the quadrant, and then a notes section. You can also add a “Manager Notes” section if you like.
If you create your own, it might look something like this (though you could just copy my spreadsheet here):
The Competency Dropdown makes it easy to see exactly where you feel you sit with each responsibility. It doesn’t matter if there are 3, 10, or 50, you can keep adding to that spreadsheet to keep track of how you’re progressing.
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Once the Assessment tab is filled out, you can get a quick glance at your “score” on the Data tab of this spreadsheet.
With some spreadsheet magic, it will count up all the quadrants you or an individual fall into, then give a “score” between 0 and 3. You could then make the following assessment, though it will vary based on role and company:
0-1 - New to the role, or needs improvement quickly
1.01 - 2 - Definite room for growth, but solid overall
2.01 - 2.5 - Doing well, potentially time to look at a promotion in the next 6-12 months.
2.51 - 3 - HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE?!
I’m generalizing the above because only you will be able to tell the full story. The number alone should not be the lone indicator.
The real meat here is to look at the other tabs, which show a breakdown of each competency (UI/CI/CC/UC). Goal-setting usually will take place in the Unconsciously Incompetent and Consciously Incompetent tabs.
These pivot tables help break down each item that was marked as one of the quadrants to give a focused look at where improvements can and should be made.
Armed with this spreadsheet and a list of responsibilities for your role, goal-setting should now be a breeze!
An added benefit of breaking down responsibilities in this fashion is you can create a running log of activities that help carry you into the next quadrant of competency. That running log makes it extremely easy during the next promotion or merit cycle to show what was accomplished. It’s essentially a more detailed hype doc, with concrete facts and less hype.
I’ve been using the Competency Quadrants for 4+ years now and it continues to be helpful, especially in those tricky situations where goal-setting is difficult. Check on these at least twice a year to review progress and adjust ratings.
Let me know below how you end up implementing the Competency Quadrants or if you have any questions/feedback!