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Unlocking potential with scaffolding

Updated: Jun 30




As leaders, we need to nurture our team members’ growth and help them develop new skills. Too often we toss them into the deep end and hoping they swim, or micromanage every move they make. Neither works that well.


By borrowing a powerful tool from the education field we can enable team members to soar while maintaining their independence.


What is scaffolding?

In the world of construction, scaffolding is a temporary structure that builders use to reach new levels of a project. It provides the necessary support to so builders can do work that would be out of reach or unsafe.


I remember people liking the scaffolding design by Michael Graves & Associates to support the restoration of the Washington Monument so much they didn’t want to taken down when the project was done.


Scaffolding designed by Michael Graves & Associates circa 2000.

Credit: Smithsonian Magazine.


In education, scaffolding takes on a different role. Teachers use this approach to help children grasp complex concepts by breaking them down into manageable chunks. Jerome Bruner, a renowned American psychologist, introduced the concept of scaffolding. He believed that learning is a social process, where knowledgeable individuals support those with less expertise.


My kids started by riding tricycles and were able to learn how to steer and peddle, then we used balance bikes so they could glide and lean the bike into a turn. Finally we would hold on for a bit and let them go until the could start on their own. At each stage there was support to help them develop the skills and then we removed it and added a way to learn a new skill until they could do it all. Getting a free tricycle and a Strider bike from neighbors helped.


Here are some examples of how you can apply it in the workplace:

  1. A designer needs to present a design to a leader. You work with them on an outline, edit their presentation and have them practice delivering it to you and answering your questions. You give them feedback on the structure, how to be more concise and how to push back on ideas that won’t work. Overtime you can stop the practice and outline work and just review the draft.

  2. An associate PM needs to do interviews to work on a new feature. You work with them on the interview guide, help them make the request, practice the interview and pick a friendly customer to start with. You give them feedback on their introductions, encourage them to avoid leading questions and point out a missed opportunity to explore something the client brought up. Overtime you review the research plan and read the insights.

Here are some techniques you can try inspired by Rasmussen University:

Prompting questions

Rather than handing out answers, challenge your team members to think critically. Ask questions like:

  1. “What do you think this needs to achieve?”

  2. “How would you approach this?”

  3. “What’s your strategy or plan?”


Activities just above their ability

Set tasks that are slightly beyond their current skill level. It’s like encouraging a swimmer to venture into deeper waters gradually. Ensure the tasks are achievable within their skill set and the allotted time. Providing specific and actionable feedback is an important part of this.


Thinking out loud

One of my mentors was a school superintendent, he taught me to think out loud and explain how I approach a problem and why I did what I did. It’s a powerful learning tool. Share your thought process openly. This technique is like thinking aloud while solving a problem. Explain your approach, what you’re looking for, and why.


Tools or templates

Provide templates or tools to structure their work. A design leader I coached used a one page template to help designers define the strategy for a project. The designer would  do the draft and the manager could work with them to make it more thoughtful and impactful


Roleplaying

If you want your team members to pitch ideas effectively, offer them a framework to practice with. Roleplaying allows them to refine their pitch, giving them confidence before they face higher-ups.


Incorporate these scaffolding techniques into your leadership toolkit, and watch as your team members develop new skills and reach their full potential. By providing the right support at the right time, you’ll be guiding them towards success, one step at a time.


Image: I updated an old graphic with Figma and I’m happy my Figma skills are getting quicker and more varied as I go.


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