We have shifted to Knowledge Work, but how do we find, develop and retain knowledgeable workers? This post examines Talent Management from two perspectives. First, what works well for agile teams. Second, how does the function change as organizations evolve, showing us how talent management may be done in future.
Let’s start by understanding what talent management covers. Talent Management is the strategy, planning and execution of everything needed to hire, develop, reward performance, and retain people. So, all the traditional Human Resources (HR) work, that we don’t call “HR” anymore because people are not resources.
The term talent management comes from research done by McKinsey in the late 1990’s and popularized in the book “The War for Talent” in 2001. At the time the authors were talking mainly about recruiting for leadership roles and the importance of finding people who possess: "a sharp strategic mind, leadership ability, communications skills, the ability to attract and inspire people, entrepreneurial instincts, functional skills, and the ability to deliver results." However, the term became so popular it is now used for the hiring and development at all levels, not just senior roles.
Why it became a big deal and the model organizations aspire to follow is because the McKinsey research found a definitive connection between top performers and superior corporate achievement. Not surprisingly, when you have the best people, you get industry-leading results. Not only that, but based on studying 13,000 executives in 27 companies, they identified how to do it and defined the following steps:
- Embrace a Talent Mindset
- Craft a Winning Employee Value Proposition
- Rebuild Your Recruiting Strategy
- Weave Development into Your Organization
- Differentiate and Affirm Your People
- Construct a practical framework for making this happen in your organization
When we read through this list anyone familiar with the agile mindset will likely see connections to agile and lean values. The recognition that people bring value and the need to respect, attract and engage people is central to the process. However, like agile adoption, just because organizations have known what they should be doing since the early 2000’s it does not mean they always behave that way.
Just as the agile mindset is sometimes paid lip service and poorly implemented, many organizations say they have policies for talent management but implement them poorly also. So, after recognizing why the process is a good one, even though it is often implemented less well (much like agile) let’s see how talent management operates for agile teams.
Agile approaches recognize it is people who add value. They favor a Theory Y (people want to contribute and learn) approach to leadership over Theory X (people are lazy and need close supervision). Agile teams are built around intrinsic motivators such as autonomy of work, mastery of skills, and alignment with a vision and purpose.
Agile approaches encourage engaging the team in the recruiting process. So, while a hiring manager may pre-screen candidates for basic skills or security clearances, the actual evaluation of candidates and selection of the successful person is performed by members of the team itself. While this may sound inefficient, diverting attention from project goals, the negative impact of a poorly matched new hire is much greater.
When external people hire new team members without significant team consultation problems often ensue. This is then made worse because there is usually a delay in resolving the issue. People understandably want to give new hires “time to find their feet” and the “benefit of the doubt” before removing them from a team which aggravates the issue.
By contrast, when the team selects new members themselves they have already mentally prepared themselves for them joining. By asking candidates to perform tasks like coding exercises or a design-review, they test skills, get a feel of how candidates think, and how interactions may be. There are fewer mismatches of talent or temperament and high performing teams are more likely to stay in the Tuckman Performing stage rather than churning back through the Storming and Norming stages again.
Getting the teams involved in hiring is part of the talent management process Step 6 “Construct a practical framework for making this happen in your organization”. Agile approaches adopt many of the other steps also, they support Step 4 “Weave Development into Your Organization” and Step 5 “Differentiate and Affirm Your People” through empowered teams and adaptation.
Agile teams are empowered to make local decisions and encouraged to self-organize about accomplishing work. Shifting ownership and decision making down to the doers of work is more respectful of their talents and a more rewarding way for people to work.
Encouraging inspection and adaptation through product demonstrations, retrospectives, and experiments develop employees. It demonstrates trust in their opinions and allows them to better advance in their careers through experimenting with new roles.
Finally, the emerging practice of keeping high-performing agile teams together and bringing new work to established teams, values employee contributions. Rather than disbanding high-performing teams when the project completes, keeping that integrated unit together and giving them a new challenge to work on.
Some progressive organizations have dropped hierarchical, command-and-control structures in favor of flatter, empowered teams. Coming from a background of agile development it is natural to think this is the broadening of agile thinking into the larger organizational landscape and the growth of truly agile organizations. However, while this observation matches our worldview, it is a flawed perspective of a bigger picture.
When we start examining organizational evolution from primitive gangs to the most sophisticated egalitarian organizations we discover that the agile mindset and principles are stepping stones on a journey that goes further. Agile approaches, that started out in organizing knowledge-work teams, are not the best tools for examining organizational structures and strategy.
Social researcher Frederic Laloux, a former associate partner with McKinsey, literally wrote the book on organizational evolution entitled “Reinventing Organizations” in 2014. In it he charts the development of organizational types in a progression from the most basic to the most advanced. Each stage of this progression has an accompanying color associated with it as a shorthand for the more descriptive titles. A summary of these stages with their color names is listed in the table below:
Name and Characteristics
Key Breakthroughs and Theme
Constant exercise of power to keep people in line. Fear as the glue of the organization. Highly reactive, short-term focus. Thrives in chaotic environments.
· Command authority
· Division of Labor
· Street gangs
· Tribal Militias
Highly formal roles in a hierarchical pyramid. Top-down Command-and-Control (what and how). Stability valued above all through rigorous process. Future is repetition of the past
· Formal roles
· Stable and scalable hierarchies
· Long term perspectives
· Most government agencies
· Public school systems
Goal is to beat competition; achieve profit and growth. Innovation is the key to staying ahead. Management by objectives (Command and control on the What?, Freedom on the How?)
· Multinational companies
· Charter schools
Within the classic pyramid structure, focus on culture and empowerment to achieve extraordinary employee motivation.
· Values-driven culture
· Stakeholder model
· Southwest Airlines
· Ben and Jerry’s
No pyramid structure. Move operational functions to provider teams. Empower delivery and local organization. Provide templates and services.
· Self-Management (Communities of practitioners)
· Wholeness (Distributed knowledge and decision making)
Laloux is careful to point out that organizations may straddle categories. Some departments in the same organization may be more mature than others. Also, one level is not necessarily better than another, they are just different and hold different values as their guides.
40 years ago, most companies were Amber with inflexible hierarchies and they struggled to compete with the emerging Orange organizations that valued and rewarded talent more. These days most organizations are Orange and are struggling to respond to the challenges of competing with the growing number of Green values-oriented organizations.
What is surprising to some agile enthusiasts is that agile is not the latest stage of development. Agile values and principles align most closely with Green organizations that emphasise empowerment and a value-driven culture – like maximizing for business value. However, there is a stage beyond Green called Teal. It breaks apart the family mentality that uses centralized operational functions and empowered teams and instead encourages small communities of practice in more of an organism/ community-based model.
Laloux’s Red to Teal model is very useful for agile teams. The characteristics of Amber and Orange organizations nicely summarize most corporate companies today. The challenges of implementing agile approaches successfully involve the struggles of moving a traditional Amber or Orange organization to Green. Not an easy task.
However, Teal organizations are more advanced than agile Green and their approaches to talent management may reveal the future of recruiting and retention. In Teal organizations small, self-managing groups are given autonomy to do what is necessary to be successful. Each group contains all the decision-making power it typically needs, supported by a very light-weight group that provides templates and services. People are encouraged to find where they can add value and roles change frequently.
Attributes of Teal Organizations
An example of a Teal organization is Buurtzorg, a Dutch nursing organization whose name means “neighborhood care” in Dutch. Grown from the idea of its founder and nurse, Jos de Blok in 2007, who had become frustrated at the bureaucracy and “machinification” of nursing care. Buurtzorg is now the largest nursing organization in Holland. It has over 10,000 nurses and assistants working in 850 self-managed teams of 10-12 people and routinely wins awards for Best Employer of the Year.
Buurtzorg has organized around autonomy, not hierarchy. Teams make nearly all their own decisions and are supported by a bare-bones staff of 45 in the back office and 16 coaches. While they conduct over 280 Million Euros of business each year, they have only 6 people working in finance and no CFO. Without this hierarchy, their overhead costs are 8% compared to industry average of 25% which provides more funds for care and innovation. People enjoy working there too. Their staff sickness rate is 4% compared to industry averages of 7% and staff retention is the highest in the industry.
Talent Management in Teal Organizations
For a start, they don’t call it “Talent Management”. Just as “HR” is a throwback to Amber thinking of organizations as machines and people as interchangeable parts in that machine, “Talent” is also a throwback to similar thinking about skill trumping values and integrity. An unlucky/insightful choice of companies to profile in the book “The War for Talent” that give rise to the term “Talent Management” focussed on how Enron selected people based heavily on their intelligence.
Subsequently, the book and movie “The Smartest Guys in the Room” recounts how prioritizing intelligence over integrity can lead to poor choices, scandals and downfalls. Instead, Teal organizations just call the hiring and care of its staff process “growth and looking after its members”. They do not have a centralized HR department; each local group practice self-organizes and recruits as the business expands.
Work structures change quickly in Teal organizations. People may see an opportunity for improvement and partner with other team-mates to tackle it. Roles and functions come and go frequently. People are not bound by job titles and may be working on many different initiatives. In such a dynamic environment, it makes little sense recruiting for a single role, since that role may not exist for long. Instead, people are recruited for fit by their peers. Their skills are still checked, but it is much more important that the values of the new hires align with the organizational values.
After hiring the onboarding process in Teal organizations differs from Traditional/Orange and Agile/Green organizations. Since values and working co-operatively are so integral to Teal organizations, significant training in relationship skills are common after joining. It is normal for Buurtzorg staff to undertake extensive training on how decisions are made, how to resolve conflict, and how to collaborate effectively.
Training and performance reviews happen differently as well. People in Teal organizations have personal freedom and responsibility for their training. Employee’s at FAVI, a metal manufacturer in France also using Teal approaches, decide what products and techniques would best benefit their group to learn. Once mastered these skills are then used to enhance services or open new product offerings.
Instead of traditional performance reviews that try to take an objective view of past performance, more holistic reviews of one’s learning journey and calling are undertaken. They focus on wellbeing in addition to skills acquisition and growth. This may sound “Foo-Fooey” to employees in traditional organizations used to leaving their emotions at home. However, the mid-life crisis is the classic result of a life in traditional organizations without emotion.
All too often in traditional organizations people play the game of success and run the rat race. After 20 years when they realize they will not make it to the top, or the top is just as bad, but now with fewer friends, they question Why? After chasing targets and numbers, surviving yet another change program for so long people cannot help but wonder about the meaning of it all and yearn for something more.
So, What Does This All Mean?
Organizations are evolving. HR practices became Talent Management and will likely evolve into something else. We currently exist in a landscape where most organizations are run as machines prioritized for growth. However, we are seeing changes in more employee engagement and autonomy. As these changes continue work should become more meaningful, personal and rewarding. We need to embrace these changes, after all, "When you're finished changing, you're finished." -Ben Franklin
[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]