Friday, April 21, 2006

Dual Ladder Delusion

There are two kinds of engineers -- those who prefer a career in management and those who prefer to climb the technical ladder. At least that's the conventional wisdom in many large companies. As the authors of a 1986 study concluded, it's really a cruel joke.

The study is called The Dual Ladder: Motivational Solution or Managerial Delusion?. It was authored by Thomas J. Allen and Ralph Katz, both associated with MIT's Sloan School of Management, and was originally published in R&D Management. I wish I could link to an electronic copy on the web, but I can't. A Google search results in many citations, but no copy of the article. *

The authors begin their article with a frank assessment of the dual ladder's effectiveness:
The problems underlying the dual ladder concept are several ... [One problem is] organizations tend, over time, to diverge from the initial design and intent of the system. For the first few years, the criteria for promotion to the technical ladder may well be followed rigorously, but they gradually become corrupted. The technical ladder often becomes a reward for organizational loyalty rather than technical contribution.

If the dual ladder is often implemented poorly, there must be a reason companies keep the system. Perhaps, if nothing else, it is an effective way to motivate technical talent. To test this theory, Allen and Katz surveyed managers and engineers in "nine major U.S. organizations". They asked:
To what extent would you like your career to be:
  1. a progression up the technical professional ladder to a higher-level position?
  2. a progression up the managerial ladder to a higher level position?
  3. the opportunity to engage in those challenging and exciting research activities and projects with which you are most interested, irrespective of promotion?
The 2157 managers and engineers surveyed were asked to rate each of the above choices on a scale of 1 to 7. The results were 32.6% preferred "b", the management ladder, 21.6% preferred "a", the technical ladder, and 45.8% preferred "c" the opportunity to engage in challenging projects. In other words, twice as many engineers were motivated by challenging projects than by promotion up the technical ladder. Furthermore, this tendency toward a preference for challenging projects, irrespective of promotion, increased with age.

Although Allen and Katz did not study the software industry specifically, their conclusions are consistent with those of many seasoned software developers. That is: There is an inherent reward in doing interesting work. Even when there is a technical ladder available, many developers find more satisfaction in working on challenging projects than in climbing the ladder. The technical ladder is often the predominant rewards system for developers, but as you climb the ladder, you usually design and write less software. Therefore the dual ladder system is aligned neither with most developers' goals nor with the ultimate goal of the company -- to produce and make money on software.

What do you think? Is the dual ladder a good system that is just imperfectly implemented? Is it, like democracy, the worst system "except for all those others that have been tried"? Or is there a much better system out there?

* Update: Here's a copy of the article from MIT's on-line library. This version was published in 1985.


Brian said...

What a great post Dave.

We know from personal experience that the dual ladder is not a good system--especially as implemented at a certain company. Although I'm sure it was implemented with the best of intentions, I believe it has backfired.
In a technical environment, it is important to establish a meritocracy in which individual contributors are rewarded for their technical acumen and technical leadership abilities. The reward should be based (at least in part) on the career goals of the employee. As the study you cited revealed, this is almost always option 'c'. But if not, that's fine too. However, providing only options 'a' or 'b' ultimately leads to a technical aristocracy in which employees are rewarded for self-promotion and political aptitude. This results in a vicious circle in which decisions are made by politicians who perpetuate a political environment in which only politicians can function. These political architects then make politically motivated decisions which are often not in the best interest of the product, customers, and by extension the company. The other consequence is that those employees who see the technical ladder for what it is (and choose not to climb it) become demoralized because they are excluded from the decision-making process.

Much of this can be attributed to lazy management. It's much easier to rely on a pool of employees with a given title than it is to expend the extra effort to identify the real talent in a large organization. This is ironic since the technical ladder was probably intended to solve this problem in the first place.

What's the end result of all this? Low morale and attrition. Depending on the job market, the option 'c' employees become demoralized, demotivated and ultimately end up leaving the company.

Anonymous said...

The brilliant and handsome Pete Lyons wrote something similiar about his experiences at IBM. He was forced to remove it from his blog but a copy of what he said can be found here:

Dave Delay said...

Anonymous, are we talking about the same Pete Lyons. ;-)

It's great to hear other people chime in about the problems with the dual ladder, but I was really hoping to spark a dialog. If there's anyone out there who thinks the dual ladder makes sense, please put in your two cents. Also, I'd love to hear if there is a better system in practice. Microsoft, Sun and IBM all appear to have some variation of the dual ladder system. Has Google, as one example, come up with a better system?


Anonymous said...

Dual ladder promotion systems were established in organizations where subject matter excellence is needed. To force everyone into a managerial track isn't the right option. I agree that merit or results needs to be the basis for all promotions. However, the greatest results don't happen overnight. Consequently, organizations need to provide learning and growth opportunities. Jack Welch and Jim Collins miss the mark when they over emphasize finding and promoting the elite. Americans believe in giving all the opportunity regardless - and allowing those who are most qualified to emerge - regardless of color, age, religion, my judgmental opinion, etc. Organizations should be interested helping all to be successful - but still be merit oriented. (Note: Edwards Deming had a real problem with management by objective. He proved that 95% of performance problems are due to poor operations and leadership.) Professional tracks for each major subject matter are extremely helpful in this regard.

I'm not sure about the study referred to here. Everyone wants to be involved in an interesting project - regardless of whether or not they are managers or subject matter experts.

I can't think of a better conceptual model at this pointthan the dual track program. Its the execution of the model that may be the problem.