By Evan Smith, Senior Partner, Schaffer Consulting
Ongoing economic challenges and lagging consumer and business confidence are creating times of crisis for many firms. Faced by disruptive business models and rapid change—where organizational or brand survival is threatened, or where the industry is changing quickly—leaders are looking for answers quickly, perhaps feeling anxious and impatient. They’re increasingly uncomfortable with business as usual. In the face of these challenges, perhaps they’ve elected to seek a dramatically different playing field through a merger or consolidation with another firm in order to seek strategic advantage. Companies are carefully and discretely managing the investment they make in “capability-building” of their talent, as they struggle to find their footing, preserve jobs and market position, and stabilize corporate economics. (“The average amount spent per head on learning and development has not risen since 2009, according to XpertHR’s 2011 survey of 112 organizations,” http://www.xperthr.co.uk/article/109000/.aspx.)
Many companies have exercised the painful headcount cost and position reductions, and now leaders and all around them are doing more than ever. They recognize that they can’t simply put in more hours to do an “end run” past the major challenges their firms are facing. The pace is faster than ever, and they recognize fatigue in themselves and others. Key employees risk burning out—meaning a real risk of losing key people—or dialing back/checking out, in order to manage the stress and the workload.
... But Will These Bring Enough?
Many companies wait and hope that executing game-changing big decisions—such as fulfilling a merger—and undertaking difficult internal restructuring will prove sufficient to win. These may be important, even necessary, but for many companies, they are insufficient to generate needed results. Many leaders recognize they have to find ways to help their companies innovate, make difficult decisions better/faster, simplify, share the load more evenly, and “raise the game” of those who remain to create the strategic outcomes needed and envisioned—even after pulling the trigger on big decisions.
“We can’t wait for the storm to blow over—we’ve got to learn to work in the rain.”
Leaders are looking for signs that employees and others around them “get it”; that others share the challenge-experience’ for signs of movement, dynamism, and engagement. They’re looking for fresh, new ideas, and groups mobilizing around challenges. They’re looking for change for the better and for better results.
When they hear the phrase, “talent development,” many people (especially those outside of the training/learning development/ delivery community) think of instructor-led classroom time—or e-learning “information transfer” through a learning management system—training that may deliver important information, may verify that participants have had exposure to materials, may confirm that “seats” have been filled, or that may deliver basic skill building. The focus of some in the T&D community has been on how to deliver training in more bite-sized modules, more targeted, and more productively. These aims are not misguided, but they don’t address the fundamental need for dramatic capability-building that is at the heart of the performance challenge for many organizations today.
In times of crisis, with urgency to perform, difficult economic circumstances, and short time horizons, most leaders don’t see the value in people sitting placidly in classrooms, or sitting intently in front of a computer monitor while instructional videos or new policy manuals flicker by. As a result, they’re likely not thinking about training and talent development as a response to a severe business challenge, and they may not be amenable to suggestions about using it to support the changes they need to make.
Yet talent development is precisely what many organizations need most during these times. They need more productivity, innovation, and results from their talent—and they need their organization to generate better results quickly. Rather than simple instructor-led or e-learning programs, organizations need to create a different, richer, and integrated approach to talent development.
Talent Development That Gets Results
What does it take to develop talent—through training—to get results, especially under demanding circumstances? While simple training as a strategy won’t contribute enough, an overall program with an integrated action-learning, workshop-oriented, and results-focused approach can deliver powerful business results. Such a program starts with:
1. Leaders articulating the key strategic challenge for the organization, and the near-term tangible results they need to create or generate.
2. Forming cohorts or teams to take on carved-out pieces of the strategic challenge—with a focus on what the teams can take on/address in the short term, say, the next few months.
3. Building and delivering the right kind of training to these teams, including integrating:
And delivering this experience in short, focused, and scripted workshop sessions. The focus of these sessions is for the team to apply what its members are learning—in service of delivering the specific needed results called out by the leaders.
4. Leaders following up and providing feedback on the solutions implemented, and celebrating/ communicating strategically about the results achieved.
5. Iterating this approach in rapid cycles; for example, 100-day or quarter-long cycles seems to be about right.
Why Does This Work?
Much recent training and development research has focused on how to make training more effective (here’s one example from www.trainingmag.com). Recent studies have suggested some of the sorts of “on- and off-ramp” types of activities that increase training effectiveness and resulting productivity.
Rather than simply improving individual capabilities as a result of training, this results-focused talent development approach generates large-scale capability development and innovation to address severe organizational challenges, and mobilize people quickly. Recent neuroscience research and application to the areas of leadership and change has highlighted that resistance to change is not just a mental attitude, and not simply a capability people are born with, or not. It turns out that change resistance—and change readiness—are soft- and hard-wired into who we are.
“The right question is not: ‘Ready—or not?’ The right question is: ‘Ready—for what?’”
What is the “right kind” of talent development/ training, and how should we structure it? How can we best help people to have experiences that develop and engage them, and contribute to key organizational needs, especially at time of organizational uncertainty, challenge, or crisis? To introduce the right kind of talent development to help people in your organization—and help them to fully adopt and use it—the training itself needs to:
Under the duress of severe business challenges, and today’s threats to business survival, building such a coordinated approach to developing talent takes thought and time. One of the major challenges is that this work is not easily segregated from the core strategic work of leaders in the organization, and, therefore, is not easily “functionalized” and delegated to the HR or Learning/ Development function.
Once such a program is underway, however, it can deliver value quickly. The rewards can be great—at both the organizational and individual levels—as people develop capabilities and put them to use in powerful, satisfying, and results-generating ways.
Case Study: Creating New Capabilities for New-Product Design
A major industrial equipment manufacturer had a classic serial and imbalanced design process: light on design/customer engagement early in the process; heavy on engineering later. It undertook a major innovation focused not (only) on the WHAT (how to make its new product X technically better), but on the HOW, asking how it could collaborate more effectively on early-stage design, where all of the different groups of internal employees could hear from and work with each other—with representatives in successive workshops from Customer Service, After-Sales Support, Marketing, Engineering, and Operations. The meeting design required attendees to engage in iterative round robin discussions with each other and other groups to detail assumptions, clarify how they traditionally solved design problems, and explore what they saw happening with customers’ businesses and business models three and five years out.
As a result, the group as a whole had a transformative experience. Substantive design direction shifted. Even after several years, the first workshop meeting is still referenced as a game-changing bellwether event. New strategic options to change the business model were surfaced and captured.
Case Study: Building Acquisition Integration Capability
A technology-based medical device OEM expected to grow through acquisition and wanted to integrate companies in an efficient and standard way, while instilling a new culture of innovation and performance.
It identified and named a number of lead employees from each affected functional group: Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Strategy, Operations, HR, and others. Then it used a results-focused workshop approach with this group to build and deploy a common approach to integrating acquisitions.
Following through with the workshop-focused approach, this team rationalized an initial complex mix of business lines and strengthened the portfolio of companies.
In the next phases, this team worked with each business unit to pursue opportunities for growth through integrating successive acquisitions. Over time, this client made a series of successful acquisitions, and successfully integrated each, to create a broader, deeper market presence in its core markets—and significant tangible market value.
Evan Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior partner at Schaffer Consulting, a leader in the development and practice of organizational and cultural change for 50 years. He has 30 years of experience helping senior leaders to define, initiate, and carry out transformative change efforts in organizations around the world, including GE, Zurich Financial Services, Rockwell Automation, BMW of North America, and Abbott Laboratories.