Learning trends

Horizontal development vs. vertical development: what you need to know

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Horizontal Development

In the past, corporate programs favored horizontal development, which focuses on technical competencies and subject-matter expertise. Today, the trend is towards vertical development, or soft skills, to create a balance.

Vertical development vs. Horizontal development

Companies train their employees to ensure they have the skills to do their jobs. They do this because they want to get ahead and be more competitive. These training programs can be built around two types of development:

The Mind as Machine

Using a computer-based analogy, we could say that horizontal development increases the size of your mental hard drive, and vertical development boosts your processor’s speed and power. Having both means you’re in a better position to analyze and use the vast amount of data you’ve stored on your hard drive, and you’re better prepared to withstand any sudden, unexpected changes in your working environment1.

Horizontal development focuses on expertise, whereas vertical development helps you put that knowledge into practice. Horizontal development is more commonplace, and it will stay that way. Employees will always need the basic skills to meet the demands of their position. But highly developed soft skills are now critical in today’s volatile business world, where agile, effective problem-solving is key.

Soft skills and vertical development

Vertical development relates to how we interact with different levels of authority. This learning technique helps you develop personal skills so you can thrive in constantly evolving working environments. In vertical development, we start by challenging old assumptions and testing new hypotheses2.

Vertical development programs

Training programs that focus on soft skills all have one thing in common: they assess individual needs based on past behavior. It is one of the key methods trainers use to shape their teams and overcome resistance to change. Experts at the University of Harvard have developed a leadership and management program called “Immunity to Change”. This program uses a mapping system to understand how employees view future changes and also understand why needed changes have yet to be implemented. The following four-step process helps learners carefully identify why they are immune to change:

Step 1: Analyzing Your Position

To learn more about change, the Harvard program recommends identifying areas you want to change and the obstacles in your way. For example, “giving better instructions faster.”

Step 2: Designing Experiments

To test preconceived ideas, the program recommends running experiments. These tests should start with safe situations, so if things go wrong, it won’t matter. They must include actions you would normally take to manage a situation related to your main issue. Analyzing these experiences should help you determine if the results of these actions will help solve your problem. Ideally, you should involve someone who can objectively observe and assess the experiment and results.

Step 3: Challenging Assumptions

False assumptions often hold back desired changes, but resistance to specific changes tends to diminish over time, allowing change to come about naturally3. The Harvard Program shines a light on internalized obstacles: “Many leadership programs operate on the assumption that if you show people how to lead, they can do it on their own. However, the most difficult challenges that people face in their work lives are often associated with limiting the way they ‘create meaning’ at their current level of development4.”

Identifying Negative Assumptions

Identifying negative assumptions shows you which assumptions you can ignore and which you can work around. For example, managers may assume they can do something and then find out they can’t. It may simply be outside their skillset. Conversely, the company environment may discourage managers from doing certain things so might feel they don’t have the power or freedom to act.

Step 4: Drawing Conclusions

The best way to sum up vertical training is that it helps people to take their thinking up a notch. It helps them identify and solve problems—and accept that there are some problems they can’t solve. Vertical development also strengthens an individual’s ability to put their horizontal training into practice. Horizontal development helps employees perform tasks using expertise and technical competencies. Vertical development, on the other hand, empowers them to apply their expertise in new and changing environments.

Today, soft skills are no longer optional. Companies must support the vertical development of managers to make them better at leading multicultural teams, solving problems effectively and creatively, and adopting an agile approach. What soft skills are the most critical to optimal manager performance? Download our e-Book “The Top 20 Soft Skills for Managers” to find out!


  1. Petrie, p. 14.
  2. Nick Petrie, “Future Trends in Leadership Development,” Center for Leadership Development, White Paper, 2014, p. 14.
  3. Kegan and Lahey, 31-60, 249, 250, 261.
  4. Petrie, p. 15.