Skill Progression Map

Focus and development
30-60 minutes

What do your skills look like? Create a map of your research skills, a snapshot for where you are right now. You can use this map to project future scenarios, tangibly compare and discuss with others, and target skill areas for focused attention.

What you'll need

  • Print a few copies of the map template  
  • A black pen
  • Orange, blue, black markers
  • Paper or text file ready to record your personal skill lists, questions, thoughts.
  • A printout of the Value chain (Or have the page open on a browser)


1. Run the Skills and Themes Inventory activity

This will take you through all 47 craft skills, and help you identify which Themes to work on.

2. Place key Themes on the map

Select 5-8 themes from the Inventory table that are the most relevant to your job, then go through them one by one to place them on the map.

  • Position them left-to-right based on your relative level of theme-mastery
  • Position them top-to-bottom based on the skills' relative impact/leverage in your work context

Each theme added to the map may lead you to shift, adjust, and move what’s already there. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Get it good enough so that you could explain to someone else, roughly, “why is this skill placed around here?” It is okay, and in fact encouraged, to keep it messy: we’ll translate to a “full draft” version in two steps.

3. Link up your Themes

Pull up the Value chain. This is one hypothesis of how these skill themes interrelate and support or depend on one another.  
Go through each theme on your map—for each connection that theme has in the value chain sample, draw that connection on your map if both themes exist. If you’re more familiar with the format, think about connecting your own interpretation of how your skill themes relate. For any pair of skill themes that you believe support, constrain, or depend on one another, ask yourself, “Is there a meaningful relationship here? A way I can explain how one affects, amplifies, or enables the other?” Where the answer is yes, connect those two themes on your map.

4. Refine and re-evaluate

Look at your map, pretending that someone else made it for you. Does this reflect the shape of your craft? Can you understand how your skills fit together and build a realistic current picture of your practice? Hopefully, yes! Either way, we’re cleaning it up for the final step. Take your rough map and redraw it on a new template. Don’t worry about big structural changes right now (it’s enough if you’ve already noticed them), but do fine-tune relative positioning as necessary.

6. Choose your focus

Now we use the map as a diagnostic tool. Our goal is to find 1-3 themes we can actively work on (intentionally move to the right), that will make our practice more robust and impactful. Your time is limited and you can’t get better at everything. We recommend having, at most, one skill theme you’re exploring in a learning mode, one skill theme you’re actively practicing, and one more that you are consolidating. (These correspond to the fuzzy zones on the Map.) We’ll walk you through how to pick one of each.

Pick one theme to focus on learning
Start at the left of your map.

Take a look at the skills farthest to the left and highest up in visibility. Think about the themes that are supported by other, fairly developed, themes. Is there anything here that’s fuzzy? Something you want to do but don’t have a clear handle on? Pick the most important of these, and consider if you should set as your learning focus.

Focusing on learning a skill means exploring how others use it, getting a sense of where and when it fits, and where you may be able to start piloting or testing it. It might take one month, or it might take six, but that doesn’t matter; the moment you decide on learning a skill, your focus will help you find the right opportunities to ask questions and weave it into your work. Pay attention to existing resources, remain curious, and try not to get too distracted by other interesting new things. You will improve and get to a point where you can use it in practice.

Put an orange circle around this theme on your map.

Pick one theme to focus on practicing.
Now we move toward the middle.

‍Take a look at the skill themes that seem to be the most connected. Or where you are spending time and energy, but seeing uneven results. What are the core themes that will unlock new skills or open up your time once they are mastered? Pick the most interesting of these—perhaps the one you’re spending the most time on—and consider if you should set it as you practice focus.

Focusing on practice means actively seeking out the projects where it makes sense to use that skill. It’s not about trying to use that skill in all of your projects. The first and most important part of practice is actually practicing. Professionals need practice—it’s clearest in athletics, where practice is in the form of drilling and live play. Breaking down our skills into their “drillable” parts while actively attending to how we use those pieces creates a new and flexible understanding. The goal is to build up a sensitivity for the forces that require you to use certain skills, and the forces at play while and after you employ it. Practice and reflection will move skills to mastery.

Put a blue circle around this theme on your map.

Pick one theme to begin consolidating.
Finally, the right.

Take a look at the skills that are farthest along in mastery. Think about those that are well-developed, almost second nature to you. First, take a moment and try to remember what it was like when that was hard. Can you see it? Do you remember how it felt to try it? You’ve improved quite a bit. Now, think about the skills that are still an important, active part of your practice. Are there any of those that take up time you could be using in a better (left-er, and higher up) place? Rather than let it stagnate, consider if you should set that skill as a consolidation focus.  

Focusing on consolidation helps create a final layer of learning, the move from understanding enough to do it well, to understanding enough to explain it well. By consolidating, attempting to “decouple” from a skill, we find where the real edges lie. Is there someone you can teach so they can take some of the work off your hands? Teach them. Are there people who need to do it, but just don’t have the right waypoints? Write a guide. Do you think you, personally, will always have to do this thing for a while? Revisit your practice: set up templates and structures so that you never really have to think about it again. These acts of consolidation are the final push that will help your well-developed skills stay strong, and give you the closure necessary to free your attention to other areas. [Ed. note: Consider trying to break your skill down into a set of one or more patterns!]

Put a black circle around this theme on your map.

7. Document what you've learned

Get your notebook and write down

  1. What you've learned about your skills
  2. What you've learned about your organizational context, in relation to how your skills have impact
  3. Action planning! What will you invest in next? What are the immediate next steps? What resources do you have access to? What resources do you need?
Last updated: .
May 26, 2020 5:41 PM

Examples in the wild


  • Set a calendar reminder to come back and update your map in 3 or 6 months, to see what might have shifted.
  • Get good at mapping! Start here, with your skills, and practice turning thoughts into a tangible map. Conceptually describing complex systems is hard work, and this is an elegant way to start doing it. Learn it now and you will find a wide range of applications down the road. Especially if you’d like to be involved in strategy.


Team version - Sit together with your colleagues as each person goes through the activity for themselves. Check in with each other after each step. It will help you orient yourself on the map. After everyone is done with the mapping, hold a discussion and help each other plan next steps.

Can we clarify or improve?
How did it work for you?

We really like to hear how it goes—the good and the difficult. Use the contact form to send a quick note.

ResearchOps community