Making time for Personal Development: Gold Cards

At the beginning of 2015 I got the development teams in my corner of Redgate together to explore the results of an annual company health survey. Amongst the feedback we’d received in the survey was a clear consensus that team members found it difficult to make time for person development activities.

That was especially true of activities that people wanted to do to further their skills/experience in an area that did not align with the project they were currently assigned to. So, an engineer working full-time on a desktop application wanting to increase their web development skills. This kind of activity, together with reading a book on coaching or mentoring someone on testing strategies, were falling by the wayside.

Making Personal Development visibleIt wasn’t all bad news. Some team members were managing to eke out time to do personal development activities alongside core project work through timetabled extra-curricular activities that happen at Redgate, like Coding Katas, community of practice get-togethers or Coaching Dojos. However, most people were not able to find the time to focus on self-improvement naturally or simply felt too guilty to step away from project work. They saw this prioritization of personal-focussed work as somehow letting their team down.

Redgate have always been supportive of spending time on personal development (a.k.a. learning and development) tasks. In 2013 we rolled-out an entirely new approach to facilitating and building personal development plans and we’ve spent a lot of time honing role-specific Skills Maps to help people measure where they are and decide where they want to improve. Despite these efforts, the survey told us that Redgaters were still struggling to feel like their personal growth was being given enough focus.

In response to this discovery, we decided to experiment with a concept called “Gold Cards” – an idea we were introduced to by Rachel Davies of Unruly. Here’s Rachel’s post on the use of these personal development artifacts at Unruly – Gold Cards and Viking Helmet.

What are Gold Cards?

Gold Cards make it explicit that everyone can spend up to half a day a week (or one day every 2-week sprint) working on stuff associated with their personal development. For our teams, these half day personal development blocks and can be used for:

  • Anything on their personal development plan
  • Katas and dojos
  • Training
  • Product innovation (where innovating aligns with an individual’s personal development)

The only qualification for this work is that people describe what they will be spending their time on to their team at that day’s stand-up meeting.

Gold Cards on our taskboardTo represent these two half days of personal development, each team member is issued with gold-coloured cards that they can place on their team taskboard to indicate when they are working on personal development. They can use their Gold Cards at any time you choose during the week. Or if they work in two-week sprints, they can use two Gold Cards per sprint, if that makes more sense. Unused Gold Cards do not roll-over to the next time period. Use ’em or lose ’em.

We hoped Gold Cards would make it overtly ‘ok’ for everyone in development up to spend half a day a week (or one day every 2-week sprint) focusing on learning and development. Basically, we’re consenting to people spending 10% of their time on personal development. This isn’t necessarily a change in policy, we were always very open to people doing personal development activities. We just wanted to make that sentiment explicit.

Where we are now

My division of Redgate have been using Gold Cards for 6 months now and they have been a success, garnering positive feedback from team members and having little or no discernible impact on project productivity.

Here’s some of the feedback we’ve had about Gold Cards from our teams:

  • They have encouraged people to think about and undertake personal-development related tasks (hurrah!)
  • They ensure it is called-out when people are spending time away from the project and why
  • It can be difficult to know when’s the best time to use your Gold Cards, but the teams have successfully self-regulated this
  • They highlight, and implicitly promote, personal development activities that were already happening (like Coding Katas)
  • They highlight the need for people to think about personal development, to have a ‘plan’ and to actively manage it
  • Making the use of Gold Cards ‘mandatory’ didn’t really work (especially in a sprint with a big deadline)
  • People think quite hard about how many hours a Gold Card is ‘worth’ and worry about only spending half a card (i.e. only using 2 of the allotted 4 hours)

Interestingly, it seems a side-effect of adopting Gold Cards has been that personal development stuff that was already happening, like attending Coding Katas, is now called-out and visualized on team boards. This has reinforced to other team members that spending time on these personal development activities is acceptable and, as a result, they are more likely to get involved themselves.

All-in-all Gold Cards have definitely helped us move in the right direction, but we’ve got more to do with personal development – especially with regard to development areas not aligning with current project work. We hope that the Spotify Guild model may help us in that regard.

However, based on this success, we are now planning to spread Gold Cards to the rest of the development teams at Redgate.