Depth Vs. Breadth: Identifying Development Assignments for Employees

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Knowing How to Develop Your Staff

Developing employees is one of the most important aspects of managing people.  After all, the modern worker wants more than a job – they want a career that is fulfilling, and their personal growth is component of that.  Moreover, employee growth can be directly linked to things like succession planning and team performance, as well as employee engagement and retention.  Choosing the right assignments to develop your employees is therefore critical to your management success.  But how do you determine their needs?  What sort of development do they need?  A great way to answer this questions is to think about an employee’s development needs in terms of depth and breadth.  That is, how deep an assignment gets into a given subject, or how wide it spreads them in terms of exposure to new things.  Let’s take a closer look at how to determine employee development assignments.

Employee Development Using Depth Assignments

When it comes to depth, we can equate these types of assignments with employees who need deep domain skill, knowledge and expertise.  Topics may include areas of weakness, subjects where they simply lack knowledge, or activities downstream of and affected by their own work.  A growth assignment targeting knowledge depth does not require the employee become an expert.  However, it does mean the employee is expected to develop a thorough understanding of the topic, which in turn, will help him or her do their own job more effectively.

Example of A Knowledge Depth Assignment:


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


Using this example, a development assignment for John may be to shadow the plumber for a week. Over this time, John will realize the difficulties and various decisions the plumber needs to make.  Where is the best place to run the pipes?  Where should he locate the turns and corners?  Can he get his tools in that small space to cut the right holes for the pipes?  While after a week John is not an expert plumber, the experience can help John understand how his work impacts another person.

Development assignments that focus on depth are best used to teach a given employee a related skill, that helps them do their ‘regular’ job better.  The should focus on knowledge gaps.  As shown in our example, John will learn the challenges facing the plumber based on a given framing setup. Consequently, John will be able to better assemble the structure of the next house to make the plumber’s job easier and faster.

RELATED: 29 Fantastic Ways to Develop Employees


Depth Vs. Breadth of Development Assignments
Depth Vs. Breadth of Development Assignments
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Free MRH Download: Depth vs. Breadth Comparison Chart

Effective employee development is the result of careful and well thought out planning by the manager.  This template compares ten ways to develop your people in terms of depth and breadth.  You can find all of our free templates HERE. 

Developing Staff Using Broad Assignments

When it comes to assignments involving breadth, think of this type of development as a major efficiency booster for your 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, these types of assignments help employees become more self-sufficient, as well as allow them to guide other staffers.


Example of A Broad Knowledge Assignment:


Returning to our example of John, after a sufficient period of time, he will have mastered framing as a skill.  Eventually, it would be time to give him a broad assignment such that he would gain an appreciation of the overall business.  For example, we could have him get involved with things like roofing, electrical work, and even project scheduling.


In this regard, we could ask John to shadow the project manager and other experts for a few weeks so that he can see all elements of the operation. This broad exposure to multiple activities would give John a better understanding of the importance of managing schedule, the dependencies other teams have on each other, and awareness of the number of possible missteps.

Giving employee’s assignments that focus on broad learning should target their ability to work throughout the organization. The knowledge gained gives the employee a better understanding of organizational limitations, as well as the co-dependencies that exist.

How Long Should Development Assignments Last?

Depending on your industry, a development assignment can last anywhere from a few days, to a few years – whatever is necessary to gain the desired knowledge.  Typically, the length of a development assignment is proportional to their years of experience.  An entry-level employee can gain a lot of insight as a result of a single week assignment.  By contrast, the development assignment for a Senior Vice President may take a few years as the issues he or she is dealing with are far more complex and take more time to evolve.

RELATED: Shaping Young Minds: The Art of Mentoring

Over time, it’s a good idea to alternate an employee’s development assignments in terms of depth and breadth. If in the first year you put the employee on a deep domain knowledge assignment, shift that to an assignment that’s broad in nature in the second year.

The Takeaway

The nature of business and industry is changing constantly.  To keep up, our employees’ skills must constantly evolve.  Thus, the depth and breadth of development assignments play important roles throughout their careers.

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 better navigate the organization?



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