You’ve Heard of a Career Ladder, but What’s a Career Lattice?

In 2010, Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson, human resources professionals at Deloitte, promoted a new concept for career planning in their book The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work. Their ideas are rippling through the corporate, workforce, and career development communities, and it’s time to think about what they offer economic developers.

Lattice 101 - The Concept

The essential concept of a corporate lattice is the rejection of linear approaches to career development. The upward-climbing “corporate ladder,” is replaced by a more fluid “lattice,” where lateral or even downward moves that focus on learning and growing can have as much value as upward movement. A linear path on the ladder could be imagined for a junior accountant aspiring to be controller someday, perhaps not at the same firm, but in the same function, only higher, elsewhere. On a lattice that accountant might be instead moved to another division, another country, or another function such as procurement, gathering knowledge and connections across multiple arenas and becoming better prepared for management.

The authors published an article on the concepts that includes a clarifying visual:

These ideas are seen now widely in workforce and career development, where they can help workers and employers identify resources and opportunities that may have been invisible in a linear approach. Benko and Anderson write about large corporations such as Cisco that have adopted a lattice organizational style for business units and internal career paths, and report greater employee engagement and productivity as a result.

The career lattice is promoted as the necessary modern answer to the stifling bureaucratic corporate world of the past, which is described with phrases such as “governs how information flows,” “one-size-fits-all,” and “whose ideas matter.” This is the world portrayed by the Netflix series Mad Men, which was set in a 1960s advertising office, a television show that fascinated millions with stories of awful people doing terrible things to each other, including stifling their careers.

Lattice 102 - Applications for Economic Developers

For economic developers, the lattice image may already resonate. Our world consists of many people, many organizations, and many resources. We know we need to prioritize connections, collaboration, innovation, and digging beneath the surface for unexpected resources in people as well as communities. A linear path to completing a project might actually be refreshing every once in a while.

If the economic development world is multidimensional, what can we take away from the career lattice concept?

In a word, vocabulary.

Career lattice terminology describes collaborative ways of working, and overlaps with language we might use to talk about social media and professional networks. It’s often the way we talk about our work in economic development, and it’s a vocabulary that is particularly useful for describing ideas like business incubators, makerspace, and co-working office spaces. It’s well suited to entrepreneurs, startups, and freelancers, and to the communities who want to nourish these activities. It’s likely that career lattice writers deliberately borrow from and add to the entrepreneurial lexicon.

In another word, let’s not be hasty.

One of the reasons for the popularity of Mad Men was that the people at the ad agency aren’t very different from the people we know and work with today. We understand them and even, sometimes, like them. We see outstanding product come from that system, so there must be something worth preserving.  

In an article for the Forte Foundation, Precillia Redmond weighs the pros and cons of ladders and lattices, and points out that the ladder encourages subject matter expertise to deepen and grow over time, provides clearer job options for progress, and offers “comfort and familiarity with the roles, organization and people within the group.” She also warns that lateral or downward lattice moves can decrease a paycheck or be negatively perceived by the next hiring manager.

Lattice 410 - Independent Study

Can a lattice help economic developers tell a story about the progress of a project? Can we take the career terminology of collaboration and capability building and describe not our individual progress through career goals, but the paths we find to do our work?

Let’s try it. Let the lattice map the smooth places, the rocks, the downhill stretches and the U-turns that we encounter when we guide the transformation of a dilapidated barn into a farmer’s market, a brownfield into job opportunities, a community’s sense of place into a strategic plan. What do we see more clearly, what gets obscured, and does it change the way we think about our work?

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