Grow your team: Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition to the rescue

growingIn my previous post (What is an expert), I wrote about Dreyfus model of skill acquisition and gave some hints to help evaluate your stage of expertise.  Below, I’ll give a more complete abstract of the stages.  You can use it to find the right strategy to grow your team skills.

First of all, remember that any given team has members at different skill levels and can’t be treated as a set of replaceable resources. Team members are people. People want to evolve. We need to follow-up on their needs, goals and challenges.  These will vary widely depending on the stage of expertise.


Recognize them…

  • They don’t particularly want to learn; they just want to accomplish an immediate goal.
  • They do not know how to respond to mistakes, so they are fairly vulnerable to confusion.
  • They can be somewhat effective to follow instructions (context-free rules).

Grow them…

  • Give them small task lists to generate quick successes.
  • Collect feedback regularly.
  • Do pairing when you see them going into too much difficulties.
  • Don’t let them fail.

Advanced Beginner

Recognize them…

  • They want information fast.
  • They can start to break away from context-free rules.
  • They don’t want to be bugged down by lengthy theories.
  • If you try to force a larger context, they would probably dismiss it as irrelevant.

Grow them…

  • Give them task lists with some blanks in it.
  • Give them some directions about the blanks.
  • Collect feedback regularly.
  • Ask them to explain their solution about the blanks.
  • Do pairing when you see them going into too much difficulties.
  • Don’t let them fail alone.  Catch the situations and fail together.


Recognize them…

  • They can now develop conceptual models.
  • They can troubleshoot problems they have not faced before.
  • Their work is based on deliberate planning and past experience.
  • Without more experience, they’ll have trouble trying to determine which details to focus on.
  • They tend to be in a leadership role (formal or not).
  • They can mentor the novices and don’t annoy the experts overly much.

Grow them…

  • Give the problem to resolve or small solution to design.
  • Collect feedback regularly.
  • Do paring for conceptual thinking and ask them to write the task list.
  • Review task list order with them.
  • Include them in discussions on more abstract problem or design.
  • Celebrate their mistakes by showing what they’ve learned.


Recognize them…

  • They need the big picture.
  • They will seek out and want to understand the larger conceptual framework.
  • They are frustrated by oversimplified information.
  • They can reflect on how they’ve done and revise their approach to perform better next time.
  • They can learn from other people’s experience.
  • They have the ability to understand and apply maxims (proverbial, fundamental truths)*.
  • They know, from experience, what’s likely to happen next.
    • when it doesn’t happen, they know what needs to be done instead.

Grow them…

  • Give them missions.
  • Give them the context.
  • Give them the constraints and expectations.
  • Collect feedback.

(*) Example of a maxim: “test everything that can possibly break”
It needs a person with proficient skill to fully understand and apply this maxim.  The novice will end-up testing irrelevant things.


Recognize them…

  • They are the primary source of knowledge and information in any field.
  • They are the one who continually look for better methods and better ways of doing things.
  • They are folks who write books, write articles, and do the lecture circuit.
  • They work from intuition, not from reason.
  • They may be completely inarticulate as to how they arrived at a conclusion.
  • They genuinely don’t know, it just “felt right”.
  • It’s easy to derail them and ruin their performance. All you have to do is force them to follow the rules.

Grow them…

  • Give them the context.
  • Give them the constraints and expectations.
  • Remove boundaries around them.
  • Leave them space and they will take responsibilities by themselves.
  • Give them opportunities to learn new perspectives.
  • They will probably give feedback before you ask for.

As much as this table may help, it will still be difficult to recognize the right stage of a person because the expertise is per skill.  However, I notice that, as the people get closer to the expert stage, it is through their soft skills that you recognize them. According to how an expert behave, it is not surprising that they become learning machines.  Perhaps, in the end, that’s one of the few skills they are experts in.  As an exemple an expert would exploit their learning skill to learn another one “just enough” for the situation.

According to a study “Unskilled and Unaware of it”, the ability of being self-aware requires increasing the individual’s expertise.  This means individuals at lower skill levels have a tendency to overestimate their own abilities.  This will often annoy an expert.  So when pairing or mentoring within a team, it might be better using mentors who are close in skill level to the trainee.

Novices don’t see themselves as part of the system, so they won’t be aware of the impact they’re having. Experts think they’re part of the system itself and may take things more personally than you would expect. Empathy is one key element for growing people. I like this quote: The expert in anything was once a beginner.

Finally, a good distribution of the skills within a group is healthy.  Having only experts is not possible and the naive questions of the novices will often lead to good discussions. Having people in the middle stages is good for mentoring.  Mentoring leads to a better understanding and helps to reach a higher stage of expertise.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *