Jungle Gyms, Not Ladders

I've worked for essentially two types of companies - those that have clearly defined job ladders and those that don't.

A clearly defined job ladder provides people a clear picture of what they need to accomplish and what skills they need to display in order to move into a new role. A clearly defined job ladder provides a baseline for performance appraisals. Everyone in the organization knows what is expected of people in each role. Are you displaying these attributes with a level of proficiency requisite for the role, or are you not? Job ladders make the expectations of progress and the opportunity for advancement clear and consistent.

Given the choice between no structure for advancement or job ladders, I'll choose job ladders any day. And given the choice between losing my eyesight or having tunnel vision, I'll choose tunnel vision any day. Neither of the options is actually appealing.

Lean In

In "Lean In", Sheryl Sandberg uses the Ladder versus Jungle Gym metaphor to describe people's overall career path. She talks about moving from company to company, gaining different perspectives and learning along the way.

In ascending a ladder, there is a single straight path. Each step clearly defined, you move in sequenced progression with no exploration and no alternatives. Run into an obstacle? You're stuck or you move the entire ladder and start over. Someone else on the ladder? You'd best be highest on the ladder, or you've got an ass of a view.

Jungle Gym

On a jungle gym, there are infinite paths. You can ascend as you choose. You can stay at the same level and move side to side, exploring the full 360 perspective from this height. You can move diagonally. You can ascend in a straight line to the top. Run into an obstacle? No problem. Move around it. Someone else on the jungle gym? No worries, there's room for several of us and we can adjust around each other as we explore.

Jungle Gyms

Built by you

There is occasion where the few, like Sheryl, are provided the opportunity to move laterally or even diagonally within a single organization. But for most of us, the progression is more akin to a series of ladders lined up side by side. You have to jump from one to the other, risking a fall with each leap. Most organizations provide ladders, if anything at all. You have to take fear-filled leaps to build your own personal jungle gym.

Built by companies

I propose companies dump ladders and replace them with jungle gyms. This is a concept. I suspect it is wrought with issues, but I know for certain that job ladders are wrought with issues.

So let's build a jungle gym.

Roles => Competencies

First, look at all of the roles in the organization and think about the competencies and attributes each requires. Make the list comprehensive. What is specific to the role? What is more general? Technical, clinical, and interpersonal. Leave nothing out. Do this for every role in the company.

Competencies => Skills

For each of these competencies, think about what they look like on a growth continuum. What skills does a junior java developer have? What about a master java developer?

Okay, now you have a huge list of skills that map to competencies. First, you'll find that there is a good deal of commonality. You probably want most developers to be skilled in Object Orientation, regardless of language. You probably want all people to have communication skills. Think about those skills that are not really context specific and move them into their own areas. Object Oriented should move out from under the language competencies into it's own, for example.

What you should have a list of competencies that fit one or more of the formal roles within the organization. Each competency should be replete with skills one portrays on their path to mastery.


Now ditch the job ladders and formal roles. Pay everyone in the company the same base salary. For each of the skills an individual can display and utilize, increase their pay by a set, published amount. Everyone in the company has the opportunity to grow their skills along whatever path they choose. You can stay in a specific vertical and grow your skills and income. You can go shallow across a broad spectrum and grow your skills and income.  You can move vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or whatever direction you choose.

I'm not going to get into the literally hundreds of ways you can determine if someone portrays a particular set of skills. In my opinion, it should be based on group evaluation. In one model, we talked about a pay increase for every (x) skill points. That way, the evaluation was not necessarily tied directly to compensation. But I've not yet found an environment brave enough to try something this radical.

Common counter arguments

People will focus on whatever is easiest

I think we're not giving people enough credit. And if they do go for what's "easy", they have to employ the skills to get the compensation, so it's still to everyone's benefit.

People will focus on whatever they want

I think people already do this. They work on passion projects on evenings and weekends. They then seek other environments that foster their chosen growth path.

People will focus on increasing their compensation

So... people will focus on increasing their value to the organization? Gee, that's too bad.

What do you think?

I've had this in my head for years. This is the first I've put it to paper. It's not fully formed and I've never tried it. This is a concept. I suspect it is wrought with issues, but I know for certain that job ladders are wrought with issues.

Seriously, what do you think?