Using skill trees to understand organisations (Mental Models I)

In understanding organisations, one of the core questions you should ask yourself is what capabilities an organisation has. What can it do routinely and well? This is no simple question, and a good way to approach it is to ask what an ideal type organisation should be able to do routinely and well and then decompose those capabilities into a skill tree.

Skill trees are useful mental models that help us understand how different skills build capabilities, and what progression and mutual dependencies exist in a particular skill space.

The more I have looked into the question of capability, the more I have become convinced that capabilities are grossly underestimated, especially by people who otherwise have a health respect for planning and setting clear objectives with key results. The focus on objectives seems right – we should be able to answer the question of what we want to get done – but it over-indexes on two often dubious assumptions: that the world is somewhat predictable and that all objectives are equally achievable by all organisations.

The second is the most surprising: an organisation that sets its objectives without ever asking what capabilities it needs to develop to reach those objectives is essentially engaging in organizational daydreaming, not planning. Yet – how often do you ask yourself if you can really do something that you set out to do? It is almost as if asking that question demonstrates a lack of faith in yourself and the organisation – which is, of course, completely crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. Objectives should not be restrained by current capabilities, but they should inform investments in capabilities going forward. And capabilities are not just about resources either. The question ”are we adequately resourced to do this” does not in any way replace the question ”are we capable of doing this” – since the second question is about the way in which resources are deployed and about what you choose not to be able to do.

So, let us look at a simple skill tree for a government affairs organisation:

A simple skill tree model for a government affairs org

This simple skill tree gives you a sense of what a government affairs organisation should be able to do, at a minimum. It also gives you a template against which you can assess your own organisation, finding out what skills you still need to build or buy.

(The choice of building or buying, by the way, is one that is important to get right. Building compounds over time buying does not – or at least not as fast.)

What this skill tree does is also that it teases out a shared model of the skills that leadership expect a policy team to bring to the table. This is no small thing, since it allows for an interesting conversation about what skills sit where in an organisation as well. Each skill tree can then be studied with increased resolution and discussed in detail.

A good New Years exercise is to draft your own skill tree for your organisation and sort out what you need to build to get to where you need to be to reach your objectives.

Building skill and capability, incidentally, also means you become more robust and resilient – your ability to react to an increasingly uncertain context increases and you set yourself up to be able to adapt and change. A little more focus on capabilities and a little less focus on objectives is a good way to inoculate yourself and your organization against goal fixation.

Gary Klein describes this well in his book Seeing What Other’s Don’t. He notes that in most organisations someone who challenges goals is seen as a disruptive force, and excluded from the organizational thought processes. One reason for this is the one-sided focus on objectives and goals, and focusing a little bit more on capabilities is a good way to deal with this.

Summing up, then, try this for fun:

  • Use skill trees to understand your organisation and to develop it.
  • Complement objectives with a discussion about capabilities.

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