The 5% Solution: Not Noticing You’re Missing

The 5% Solution shows managers how investing just 5% of each regularly scheduled performance management conference fulfills their responsibilities of stewardship of their vital human resources.

Would you invest 5% of a performance discussion with a top performer if it meant preserving the good work that makes him or her invaluable?

As a responsible manager, maintaining your human capital is a priority. You know success relies on execution; and execution depends on people. People make decisions; take actions; achieve results. When there’s a risk that the talent that fuels key functions could soon go away, preserving that talent becomes urgent. 

It was urgent for me as chief learning officer of one of the largest state agencies in Texas. I was in charge of developing a statewide program to stop the brain drain we were facing due to retirements, promotions and other forms of attrition. 

I muddled around and fell into the same pitfalls that vexed other well-intentioned planners:

  • I misunderstood the “mission.”
  • I made it too complex.
  • I failed to design for the long haul. 

Inputs and Outcomes

The big breakthrough came when I realized I was stumbling at the starting line. I had my questions wrong.

Wrong Question:

“Who is going to take Bob’s place when he leaves?” 

Right Question:

“How are we going to sustain the contribution made by Bob’s function when he leaves?”

This may sound like a trivial distinction, but the implications are profound. A person’s value is a measure of the size problem he or she can fix. The bigger the problem, the more valued the problem solver.

“Equifinality” reminds us that there are several paths to the top of the mountain. Finding someone with skills similar to those of the valued incumbent is a reasonable starting point. This concentration on “inputs,” however, creates a type of tunnel vision.

Moving our gaze further downstream to “outcomes” removes the blinders. Now we can consider a much broader array of choices for preserving vital outcomes. For instance, we could reengineer the job, outsource it, or even conclude the outcomes are no longer relevant.

This epiphany led took me in a different direction in my approach to talent management. I call it the 5% Solution.

The 5% Solution

The 5% Solution shows managers how investing just 5% of each regularly scheduled performance management conference fulfills their responsibilities of stewardship of their vital human resources.  

I was guided by three principles in designing the process.

1. Focus on preserving the most important outcomes of an at-risk position.

Rosemary Stewart was a prolific writer and organizational theorist who proposed that all jobs could be boiled down to just three elements: demands, constraints, and choices. 

Borrowing from this framework, the 5% Solution drills past all the less important “activities” of a function to seek out the two or three vital outcomes. I call them “must-do’s.” These are the beacons that orient everything else. As Dr. Stephen Covey would say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

2. Keep it simple.

Complexity is the silent killer of most innovations. Needlessly burdensome forms confuse and discourage. The 5% Solution requires a mere two-page Position Profile. The profile addresses the following four elements (courtesy of Dr. Stewart):

  • “Must do’s” of the job
  • Constraints/context of performing the job
  • Resources: Knowledge, skills relationships supporting success
  • Mitigation Strategies: The steps the incumbent commits to take to mitigate the impact on the continued achievement of vital outcomes of the function when he or she leaves the position.

3. Make the program part of an established process to ensure it will last.

A proven strategy of change management is linking an innovation to something already established. The 5% Solution is embedded in each regularly scheduled performance management discussion. In these discussions, incumbents of key functions account for their efforts in carrying out identified mitigation strategies. 

Dialogue between the incumbent and the supervisor typically follows along these lines: 

  • Before meeting: “At our next meeting, be prepared to review your Position Profile and mitigation strategies.”
  • During meeting: “Walk me through and update me on your progress regarding your plans.”
  • Next and all subsequent meetings: “Update me…what progress are you making and what are your plans for the future?”

Spending 5% of a one-hour performance management exchange may not sound sufficient. In a one-hour exchange, this is only three minutes! The power of this minimal investment of time is in its recurrence. As part of every conference, meeting after meeting, the drip-drip cumulative influence is immense.

Putting the Process in Place

Four steps are necessary in setting up the process.

  1. Identify: The first step is identifying those positions in which the risk of talent loss is the greatest and the impact of this loss would be most severe. 
  2. Document: The second step is documentation of the Position Profile in terms of must do’s, constraints, resources, and mitigation strategies.
  3.  Implement: Implementation takes place in the 5% of each performance management accountability discussion between the key position incumbent and his or her supervisor.
  4.  Monitor: The final step is ongoing diligence to ensure targeted personnel are carrying out the mitigation strategies.

Seeing S.P.O.T.S.

One expert on succession planning humorously uses the acronym, SPOTS, to summarize the long-term status of most talent management efforts:  Succession Plans On Top Shelves.

The 5% Solution avoids the pitfalls that have plagued other approaches. By focusing on what really needs to be preserved, by keeping it simple and linking it to already institutionalized processes, continuity of operations is assured in the most critically important functions.

Most importantly, this practical process achieves a result that can be best summarized in the slogan, “Missing you, but not noticing you’re missing.”

Dr. David Biemer has been in the field of leadership and professional development for more than 30 years. Most recently, he served as chief learning officer for one of the largest public services agency in Texas. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at the McCoy College of Business Administration at Texas State University.



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