Depth Vs. Breadth: How to Choose Development Assignments for Employees

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 Framing a House

Developing employees is one of the most important aspects of managing people. Employee development can be directly linked to succession planning, team performance, and employee engagement and retention. Choosing the right assignments for employee growth is therefore critical to your management success.

I often like to think about an employee’s development needs in terms of depth and breadth. That is, how deep an assignment gets, or how wide it spreads them.

   Development Based on Depth

When it comes to depth, I often equate these types of assignments and tasks with employees who need deep domain skill, knowledge and expertise. An assignment targeting depth does not require the employee become an expert or at least highly skilled in the subject. However, it does mean the employee is expected to develop a deep understanding of the topic, which in turn, will help him or her do their own job more effectively.

Consider a simple example of a construction worker whose job is to build the wooden frames of a house. While the framer’s job may seem simple – cut wood to size and assemble various trusses and structural shapes – the impact of his work has many downstream affects. How the framing is assembled dictates how the drywall and wall board are installed. The distance of the various walls and doors impacts how much insulation may be required. And if the frames are assembled too close together, the plumber and electrician will struggle to install their components.

A development assignment for the framer may be to shadow the plumber for two weeks. Over this time, the framer will realize the difficulties and various decisions the plumber needs to make. Where is the best place to run the pipes? Where should I locate the turns and corners? Can I get my tools in that small space to cut the right holes for the pipes?  

Plumbing Development Assignment

Out of this development activity, the framer will learn the challenges facing the plumber based on a given framing setup. Consequently, the framer will be able to better assemble the structure of a house such that it will make the plumber’s job easier and faster.

Looking at Breadth

When it comes to breadth, I like to think of these assignments as major capability boosters for my employees. Breadth assignments target awareness at a high level – the big picture of how an operation works. Breadth based assignments are established to let an employee understand the mechanics of how various elements within a system work, again, so they can better understand their role. Further, breadth assignments will eventually help these employees guide other employees to help them also grasp a glimpse of the big picture.

Returning to our construction framer, I would look to offer him or her development assignments based on breadth when they have mastered framing and have learned a few other parts of the trade. I would target a breadth assignment such that he or she would gain an appreciation of things scheduling, planning, sequence, and recovery from unexpected events. In this regard, I might suggest the framer follow the project manager around for a few weeks so that they can see all elements of the operation. The take away from this would be that the framer would better understand the impact of schedule slips and have knowledge of the impact of their own missteps to the greater project.

breadth development assignment

Both depth and breadth assignments can be short-term or long-term. A long term assignment may have the framer be the project manager on the next house, for example. In an office setting, you may encourage an engineer to take on a stretch assignment as a project manager for two years. Over time, I generally alternate an employee’s development assignments in terms of depth and breadth. If in Year 1 I put the employee on a deep domain knowledge assignment, in Year 2 I would shift focus on a big picture type of activity.

The business climate and one’s skills are constantly evolving. Thus, the depth and breadth of development assignments play important roles throughout one’s career.

The next time you talk to your employees about their career growth and development, think about it in terms of depth and breadth. Do they need deep skill in an area they bump into often? Or might they need a bird’s eye view of the business to allow them to make a stronger contribution in the future?





Other Resources:

7 Business Development Ideas for Small Business (Blog Post)

Why Making Your Employees Fail Makes You a Better Manager (Blog Post)

A Baseball Guide to Management (Blog Post)





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