Pace layers: that old cliché. If you’ve been to a design conference any time in the last ten years you will have seen a version of this slide:

Onion-skin layers from outside inwards showing fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture and nature
Brand, S. (2018). Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning. Journal of Design and Science.

The diagram illustrates Stewart Brand’s concept of pace layers. It shows the order of a healthy civilisation arranged layer by layer, working down from the fast and attention-getting to the slow and powerful.

You can apply the same concept to the inner workings of an organisation. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Pace layers show why that might be the case — culture is just above nature in its permanence, and thus moves incredibly slowly, adding friction to anything that attempts to change it.

You can also think of professional development in terms of pace layers. Ambitious staff will want to know where they are, where they can get to, and how to get there. They’ll need a framework which provides a clear understanding of what’s necessary to advance along a particular track. For such a framework to be successful, it must focus on the things which change at the same speed as a career, and consider them in the context of the needs of an organisation.

At Clearleft we identified five levels of pace in the changing requirements of a profession.

Onion-skin layers from outside inwards showing roles, practices, skills, disciplines and values

From slow to fast we have:

  1. Values represent the culture of a company. A meaningful set of values lead to ways of working and general competencies that are shared by all employees, but will vary little over time. These could include core skillsets such as communication, problem solving, leadership and empathy, which are shared across the organisation.
  2. Disciplines are the different groups of skills an organisation needs to function. They will only change when the organisation fundamentally changes the services or products it provides. Examples of these groups of skills are operations, finance, design, strategy, marketing, development. You should not think of them as teams or departments, but skill sets used in differing proportion by people across the organisation. A marketer for example, will lean heavily of specialised marketing skills, but may also be required to perform some aspects of design, strategy and finance.
  3. Skills are the outcomes the disciplines are there to achieve. Core communication skills might include collaboration, presentation and feedback. Design-specific skills could include exploration, production craft and validation.
  4. Practices are how you do your job on a day-to-day basis – the tools, techniques and activities used. These can be quite fluid and change quickly – at the speed of fashion, to use Brand’s metaphor – but the outcomes they achieve will remain largely unchanged in the short term.
  5. Job roles – the actual jobs or job titles people have – can change quickly, but the underlying skills required across the board remain the same. For example an organisation might decide to swap out its generalists in favour of specialists, but while the job roles have changed, the practices and skills remain largely untouched albeit they will be combined in different ways.

Of these layers it is the Values, Disciplines and Skills which move at the speed of a career. Applied to professional development it is therefore the combination of skills, and competency required of them, which should form a framework to help people judge where they are in their career, and where they should or could get to.

To learn more about how develop and use such a career framework for your organisation, you can sign up for my professional development workshop at Leading Design either in person in New York on Friday 18th March, or online on Thursday 31st March 2022.

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