Skill-Will Matrix Revisited: Taking the Employee’s Point of View


In the world of talent management and coaching, the Skill-Will Matrix is one of those classic, quick little models that consultants and bosses love to bust out on a the back of an envelope, TPS report, or cocktail napkin. The Skill-Will Matrix looks  like this:

Like any good 2×2 matrix, it separates two qualitative aspects of a phenomenon  in a way that makes for some useful distinctions. The phenomenon in this case is a person’s performance in a particular area, and the distinctions are twofold:

1.  How competent / able is a person to do something?  (their “skill”)
2.  How motivated / desirous are they to do something?   (their “will”)

The “something” is usually some sort of “competency,” which is a specific behavior, for example, standing up in front of a crowd of 200 people and delivering a speech.   Some people are better skilled at it than others. Some people are more willing to do it than others.   There’s an interplay between those elements for sure, but they are also very distinct elements.

(NOTE: In the management consulting world, there is a convention of making the upper-left corner the “best of both worlds” quadrant, and the lower-right corner the “dog” quadrant.  However, for those of us who build quantifiable graphs of this stuff, we go with the conventional X-Y axis directionality.)

WHY THIS MATTERS:  The reason the Skill vs. Will distinction is important is because how you deal with a lack of skill/ability is very different than how you deal with a lack of will/desire.  Most skill-will descriptions take the perspective of the boss or organization and give guidance regarding the following question:   “What should you DO with this person?”     Using the above example, the answer often looks something like this:

The Skill-Will Matrix: What is a Boss to do?

Or even this:

Skill-Will Matrix: Simple Advice for the Time-Pressed Boss

You can find many variations on this skill-will matrix and the above advice for managers. What I don’t see a lot of is a skill-will matrix that addresses these issues from the employee’s / learner’s point of view.

So let’s do that… but first, a question:

Which of these is harder:  Getting a person to honestly self-assess their “skill” or getting them to honestly self-assess their “will?” 

I’m not going to answer that right here, but I will say this:   We can break down the issue of motivation (“will”) into its components, and one of those components is a thing that I like to call “value.”  What I mean by “value” is the importance or priority that a person places on a behavior or activity (aka, a “competency”).  Is delivering a speech to 200 people something you think is important for you to be able to do well?   The answer to that question has huge implications.

Here’s what my “Skill-Value” matrix looks like (NOTE: I prefer the term “Proficiency” instead of “Skill” ), from the learner’s point of view:

Key Points:

Q1 — HIGH PROFICIENCY & HIGH VALUE:   At a certain point, the key isn’t to be “more perfect” at a competency, but rather, to find other related competencies that can work in tandem with the ones that you already value highly and do well.  The great myth of “strengths-based” development is to focus on just a few narrow strengths.  Not so… as these diagrams illustrate, when you grow the peak of your talent “pyramid” (that is, your depth of skill / level of mastery), you can and should to broaden your “base” (your breadth / degree of versatility).   I believe that this talent development strategy — specialization followed by strategic diversification — works effectively for individuals as well as for entire groups.

Q2 — LOW PROFICIENCY & HIGH VALUE:  Congratulations!   You’re a highly-motivated yet appropriately-humble learner!  (Now, try to stay that way!)  The question is, what resources are available to help you improve your proficiency in these areas that you’d like to improve upon?  Even if you’re not part of an organization that offers training and development, there are ample resources out there.   My advice:  Don’t skimp on it. Spend some money on a high quality course, get a proper teacher, mentor or coach, and work on it. The more you put in, the more you get out of it.

Q3 — HIGH PROFICIENCY & LOW VALUE:   You know how to do it, you’ve practiced and demonstrated your ability to do it, but you just don’t see the point in doing it.  Okay.  Take a step back and re-assess why you feel that way. What experiences or assumptions are driving that belief?  Do your beliefs or expectations jive with reality? Is there another way for you to look at things?  Try reframing the task/behavior and see if that helps. Challenging our beliefs can be a difficult and even painful process – we’ll fight it every inch of the way – but the end result is very liberating and satisfying.

Q4 — LOW PROFICIENCY & LOW VALUE:  Hmmm….Well, the good news is, once you’re self-aware enough to recognize where you’re at (i.e,  you know you’re not good at doing something and you just don’t see the value in doing it), you’ve got some pretty simple decisions to make:  1) Is there any way for you to change your perspective on the value of this competency, as in the previous Quadrant 3?      If not, then, 2)  Is there any way for you do work on your proficiency and bring it up to a minimum acceptable level, enough to “get by?”      If not, then 3) can you somehow work around this particular issue? Is there someone you can pair up with or delegate this to?  Can you change the nature of your job/career so that this competency plays an irrelevant role?   Be careful of that last question – if you and your boss/customers/investors disagree about what’s relevant to your role, you may want to challenge your own beliefs.  Once again, see Quadrant 3, above.

Okay, so that takes care of the idea of “Skill” (aka “Proficiency“)  and “Importance” (aka “Value“)  Now, other than the idea of Value, what other factors play into this overall idea of “Will” or “Desire?”    What if I’m good at something, and I think it’s important, but I still don’t do it?  Or the reverse — what if I continue to try doing something that I’m not good at don’t believe is important?

I think here we’re entering the world of how much a person ENJOYS something, and to what degree something is a HABIT.

Does anyone have any employee/learner-centered coaching tips for helping people overcome the things they enjoy /hate or have a habit of doing / not doing?

Seems like an area that should be well-covered, doesn’t it?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.wordpress.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on April 11, 2010, in Business, Information Design, Learning, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hi danspira, good post. I recently read the book “Switch” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath and I think it convincingly adds a third dimension to the skill/will dimensions (rider and elephant, in this book’s analogy), which is the “path” — essentially the structural situation which makes it easier or more difficult to do the thing one wants to do. I find this a useful addition to this line of thinking.

  1. Pingback: Page not found « Meme Menagerie

  2. Pingback: About Skill and Will « Startup Dreamer

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