Want to learn more about apprenticeship? Read our previous article introducing software apprenticeship.

There are many reasons to invest in an apprenticeship program. You can use them to:

  • Bring more domain expertise to your team
  • Level up your senior people’s leadership skills
  • Provide career growth opportunities for existing employees
  • Help your organization scale by splitting teams
  • Increase the number of people you can hire and work with successfully
  • Supplement your team with skills that aren’t quite justifiable for a full time hire

Regardless of why your organization decides to implement an apprenticeship program, alignment on these reasons helps the program meet stakeholder expectations more effectively. Your organization’s desired outcomes will have a significant impact on your apprenticeship program’s design. If your goal for your new apprenticeship program is to help you rapidly grow your teams, the program will need to target candidates with a deep understanding of your organization’s domain or an existing baseline of the desired skills. If your goal is to provide career growth opportunities for employees in other roles, you may opt for a longer lead time and provide access to specialized training.

Building this alignment is a five step process:

  1. Identify key stakeholders
  2. Understand their goals and motivations
  3. Emphasize complementary goals and motives; mitigate conflicting ones
  4. Set initial desired outcomes
  5. Build feedback and support

Step 1: Identify your apprenticeship program’s key stakeholders

Knowing your stakeholders is the first step to understanding your program’s desired outcomes. Some sample questions to guide you in learning who these stakeholders may be:

  • Who could prevent the program from launching, or propel it forward?
  • Who is involved in budgeting for, approving headcount, sourcing, interviewing and hiring people?
  • Who is most excited about mentoring and professional growth?
  • Who will be most impacted by short term delays to the product roadmap?
  • Who would most benefit from increased throughput or bandwidth in a few months or quarters?
  • Which team is most willing and able to accommodate a beginner?
  • Is anyone within the org looking to make a career transition?
  • Who would you like to retain who isn’t in a good role fit for their career goals?
  • Which teams are having a hard time filling positions due to needing skills that are hard to hire for?
  • Are there people who are resistant to the notion of an apprenticeship program?

While the answers may differ across organizations, there are common places to start looking. HR and line management will be highly invested in both the interviewing and the upskilling parts of an apprenticeship program. Product team members and the sales organization will want to be in the loop about any shifts to the product roadmap, short or long term. More specialized teams might be struggling to fill positions. Personnel on teams on the lower end of the pay spectrum (customer success, testing, project management, etc) might want to make a career transition. Teams that are most able to accommodate a beginner often have more flexible milestone timelines. Budgeting and headcount is almost always run by a combination of operations, HR, and director/executive level management.

By identifying (and hopefully rallying!) these stakeholders, you begin to build the support network the program will need to succeed. Having a deep understanding of these stakeholders’ goals and motivations will make gathering that support easier. Remember, apprenticeship is about the long term, and good programs will outlast their designers!

Step 2: Understand your stakeholders’ goals and motivations

Each stakeholder in your program will have different motivations. Maybe they want to have the the ability to work around the talent market’s constraints. Or perhaps they have a deep desire to improve others’ livelihoods by helping them acquire marketable, high value skills. Most of your stakeholders will have different motivations. These motivations will inform the goals they want for the program.

To uncover their motivations, spend time learning what they do and what problems they are struggling with in the organization. Take them out to coffee or tea and practice your active listening skills. Focus on learning about their problems and demonstrating your interest in them. Building bridges is far more important than pitching your dream. That can always come later after you really understand what your stakeholders are trying to accomplish. As you get to know your stakeholders’ motivations and goals you can begin putting together what goals you want the apprenticeship program to accomplish.

Step 3: Handle complementary and conflicting goals

Once you’ve started to understand your stakeholders’ goals and motivations, I like to perform an affinity mapping exercise to figure out how aligned people’s goals and motivations for apprenticeship in an organization truly are. In the best case all are well aligned and complementary. In some cases they are in deep conflict. In most cases there are some clearly shared motivations and desired outcomes, some that are less shared and a few that are directly conflicting. While it’s easy to get bogged down in the conflict, I’ve found starting with the harmonies and shared motivations is the best path forward. Don’t discard the conflicting goals entirely, but set them aside for now.

Look at the areas of strongest alignment. Do they cross organizational boundaries? Are there specific areas of the program that people are highly aligned on? Who in the organization seem the most aligned?

From there, explore the areas of conflict. What pressures may be causing the conflict? Are there groups of people who appear to have radically different desires? Are there any that seem well and truly irreconcilable? Is the conflict diffuse or clustered? Is there any one team or person who seems to have the most opposition? Understanding both where the difficulties lie and what causes them will help you decide whether to address them directly, or design around them.

Once you feel comfortable with your stakeholders’ goals and motivations and how they intertwine, you can make your first pass at your program’s goals.

Step 4: Design your initial outcomes

Your program outcomes will depend on your organization’s current context. If your organization is struggling to acquire talent for certain roles, emphasize goals that focus more on hiring and bringing new hires up to speed. If experiencing quality or empathy gaps between your delivery teams and customers, you may want to emphasize upskilling existing employees so they can bring their expertise to bridge that gap in your delivery organization.

Apprenticeship programs are a long term, complex and complicated thing. While initial goals are important we also want them to be easy to adjust and change as we learn. One way to make them easy to adjust is to tie them to a more broad objective, such as:

  • Productivity – Can we create more value for the amount of time and/or money spent?
  • Scalability – Do we have the people and other resources we need to grow the business?
  • Sustainability – Are we managing our costs and expenses in a way that provides us with long term viability?

There are likely more objectives that are more about your particular organization’s values, but these ones seem to be shared quite broadly. It’s also useful for your goals to have a metric and timeline. While these will need to be adapted as the program progresses, having a starting point is a great way to solicit feedback and build support. Some examples could be:

  • Scalability – Increase number of entry-level positions hired from 3% of headcount to 5% by the end of Q3 2018.
  • Productivity – Decrease time before entry-level positions may comfortably operate with medium oversight from 3 months to 2 months.
  • Scalability – Increase the percent of team members we feel could successfully lead a team from 10% to 20% within 9 months.
  • Sustainability – Decrease turnover in support and testing roles by 10% by providing a viable upskilling path by the end of next year.
  • Productivity – Increase the number of teams that can operate safely and successfully in the codebase from 3 to 4 by the end of 6 months.

By focusing our anticipated program outcomes with our stakeholders’ motivations we increase the likelihood they’ll be invested in guiding and supporting the program.

Step 5: Building support

Once your initial outcomes are assembled, you will want to solicit feedback from your stakeholders. Feel free to start with your most avid supporters, or your most hardened detractors. The important thing is to gather initial feedback one on one or in small, well aligned groups so you don’t have to worry as much about managing conflict. This lets you focus on staying present and understanding your stakeholder’s responses. Do they dive into or avoid a particular outcome? respond positively or negatively to anything in particular? Go through several feedback rounds before adjusting. This lets you get a variety of stakeholders’ opinions and results. Don’t spread them out too far as there will likely be cross talk.

Building an apprenticeship program is a long process. Alignment and organizational buy-in at an early stage help cultivate a self-sustaining, vibrant program with a lasting impact. Organizational ownership also makes space for you and others who want to help execute on the program and do the hard work of shifting an organization to be supportive of apprentices.