Designing Good Talent Management Means Making Tradeoffs

6 Mins

Designing Good Talent Management Means Making Tradeoffs

No talent management process is perfect.   There are always parts of it that are at odds with each other.  You can build an intense, realistic simulation of every job you want to hire for and have an amazing selection process that’s so expensive the company can’t possibly sustain it.  

You can make a rich, thorough, intensely detailed performance management process and the effort that’s required for people to complete it will lead to widespread non-compliance.  You can make an ultra-simple process that people are happy to follow and complete, and you’ll lack real usable data to take action on.  

There are always tradeoffs.  

The trick to building great processes is accepting that perhaps there is no harmonious state where you have amazing data, high compliance, low cost, and happy participants.  These are four corners of a king size bed and you’re likely going to be armed with a queen size fitted sheet - it’s just the nature of how companies often support talent management organizations in terms of resources, power, and al the things that go into “process-craft”. 

So in a world where I think you’re simply going to be more sane and successful if you’re realistic with your expectations, coming to a certain state of zen with the idea that tradeoffs are to be expected and embraced will serve you well as a talent manager. 

Simplicity vs. Specificity

Of the common trade offs in talent management processes, I think the one that fascinates me the most is simplicity vs specificity.  Based on what I’ve seen with working with everything from small companies to F100s is that there’s this deep and fundamental desire, sometimes just from the executives, but other times from the actual talent management organization itself, to create processes that are super specific and nuanced to their business.  

They must capture all of the rich detail of every job role and have these richly crafted definitions around what counts towards an employee's performance in order to define their success in the role.  Huge, voluminous tomes of competencies,  job descriptions, job profiles, job families, job levels, etc.  They build these cathedral-like structures of information and craft these customized forms and tools to capture the data that’s required to properly execute their performance management. Then, ultimately sit alone in their artisanally crafted edifice because no one else in the business can use any of the information they’ve collected cross-functionally.  

Even in the more miraculous environments where this deep specificity of information around performance definitions for every role in a massive company has a decently compliance collection and review process (I’ve seen like maybe one of these ever), the fundamental data produced isn’t usable for problems of scale.  It’s extremely cumbersome to aggregate, to clean, then analyze, to norm.  

QUOTE BLOCK: It’s this rich and deep irony of talent management - that problems of scale are best served by consistent, simply designed data and information that’s well integrated but companies of scale are often times naturally complex and there’s this want to have more specific processes that are tailored to this complexity and variety. 

Simplicity isn’t perfect either.  

Simple means things fall through the cracks.  A simpler scale or simpler competency model might not feel like it really fits a meaningful chunk of the organization.  You’ll be able to aggregate, analyze, and do all kinds of great things with nice consistent data - but then how accurate is it if it misses some of that specificity?  

One bet I’d be willing to make based on what I’ve observed in the real world is the fear of a lack of specificity in the information collected in performance management processes. More often than not it outweighs the fear of making something so deep and thorough that no one uses it, understands it, or can do anything practical with it outside of simply collecting it and making individual-based decisions off it.  

The other, and potentially more interesting bet, is that this is a misplaced fear: that using a simpler structure at scale, even though there are tradeoffs and potentially very real gaps in how that process fits in all roles in the company are the better trade-off.  

My reasoning for this? Time.  

Time flows like a river.  If you opt for a simpler process, it’s easier to implement, roll out, experiment, and evaluate continuously.  Over time, you can really start to understand if the shortcomings of simplification are truly having an impact or not.  You can do this on a much shorter time scale than you would need to build an incredibly customized approach that’s thorough and more specific to every role in the organization.  This is also something that’s testable at small scales to start, which I always encourage talent managers to consider.  

Use pilot groups and centers of excellence models to try out new approaches.  Could a simpler performance management process work with fewer competencies, a much shorter data entry experience, and a streamlined review conversation template? Figure out a way to test it and see.  The upsides of the tradeoffs along the way may be worth it, or maybe they won’t be, but you’ll understand the real implications of these tradeoffs. 

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