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Simplicity in Talent Management

Authored by: Managing Partners – Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Borrowing from psychologist and interpersonal relations expert, Will Schutz (Profound Simplicity, 1979), and the English Franciscan Friar William of Ockham (theologian and scholastic philosopher in the 1300s, with more history before him), we need to make Talent Management as simple as it can be. Simple enough to understand and use but complex and complete enough to work (Robert Eichinger, 2022).

Solving complex problems with simple solutions takes some work. Let’s explore this.

When presented with a serious and complex Talent Management (TM) problem (too little talent on the bench, DEI, poor hires, engagement, retention) there is a predictable response from the customers on the issue at hand.

It’s a predictable four-stage process in the field when addressing complex problems:

  1. Simplistic
  2. Complexified
  3. Parsimonious
  4. Simple

Initial Response: Stage 1—Simplistic, Shiny Bright Objects

There will always be four color, two-by-two tables created by named x and y axes, to categorize and solve problems with simplistic suggestions. To the comfortably uninformed, the solutions look good, sound good, are intuitive and are easy to use and explain, but they don’t work, or they only scratch the surface, because they are not anchored anywhere near deep enough in the science of human behavior.

Much passion is used to offer the quick and simple solution. In some cases, it is driven by the zeal for being first to market and in others a diluted sense of being right. Under sodium pentothal (truth serum), proponents of these solutions would claim and believe they are right and have everything they need.

Aside from being good looking, easy to use and perhaps even fun, simple solutions are not supported by anything other than personal belief at the bad end, and the result of a lifetime of experience on the good end. 

When asked for evidence, you get anecdotes, reactional rhetoric, or perhaps “you should trust me on this”, or “one million users can’t be wrong”. At this stage, charisma and presence carries the day. 

Much money is spent on overly simplistic solutions to complex problems. Many resources are dedicated to learning about, getting certified in and applying these solutions, and most of the people who bring in these simplistic solutions have already been to the bank by the time customers figure out they didn’t work or were at best a conversation starter and short-term salve for the presenting pain.

Reaction to Simple: Stage 2–The Whole Enchalada

In predictable fashion, the academics and research-oriented TM professionals and TM thought leaders tend to react. They launch into the search for truth, the whole truth, the complete truth. They study, they publish, they present, they create tools and processes, and they consult. And what they offer is often very good, yet quite complex.

They use the standards of science and replicability and efficacy measurement. Their findings have been demonstrated to work (reliability and validity). In the journals, there is a coalescence of facts. Their unique choice of words may be a bit different but then agreement forms, e.g., IQ is correlated to management and leadership success at about the .50 level, or 25% of the variance of success. EQ contributes another 25%. Learning agility another 25%.

Books are written and evidence pours in. Consultancies are created.  Practitioners are informed and certified. Case studies are built. Findings get re-verified. Best practices are created. This is a good thing, right?

The problem at stage two is a conundrum. The solution may be a complete and brilliant 23-step truth, with a deep technical guide and a 400-page playbook, but it is too complex for many TM and certainly non-TM customers to use. Why? It is hard to explain. It takes too long to implement. To the customer it feels like teaching advanced calculus to grade school kids learning arithmetic or organic chemistry to someone wanting to make a simple syrup. It’s too much. They want simple.

Use efficient insights: Stage 3–Occom’s Razor

This step is preformed by practitioners and thought leaders. What could we trim and still get most of the job done?  What are the fewest elements we need to use to solve most of the presenting talent management issue(s)? It’s about frugality, parsimony.

It’s a game of “I can name that tune in the fewest notes” AND getting the title of the song right, repeatedly.

Stage 3 is a Min/Max proposition– the minimum needed to get the best result. Compared to the Step 2 Max\Max frame and the Step 1 Min/Min Frame, this reaction finds parameters of applications that have been discovered. 

The key defining characteristic of a parsimonious frame is “the least complex to reliably get enough of the right answer”.

It’s easier to use, easier to understand and easier to implement and maintain. It has a higher probability of being used.

Often though, in the pursuit of easy and efficient, the solution leaves out the essence of the best and likely deeper response to the presenting issue.

Use of Wisdom: Stage 4—Applying Essence

More rarely, we get to the simple essence of the best solution. It’s really one approach or most of one. It could be a few things to do. When solving for health and well-being, think Sleep, Diet, and Exercise. An aspirin a day. Get your colonoscopy (the gold standard). Take statins. Stretch. And coming soon, a cancer vaccination!

Most Talent Management issues are complex because people are complex. Not too many people fit comfortably inside one quadrant of a 4×4 behavioral grid.

If solving our talent issues were simple, we would fill all open jobs with people better than the leaving incumbent. We’d never make a bad hire or promote an incapable candidate. We’d never pick the wrong CEO at the wrong time. All enterprises would be healthy and successful. There would be no unemployed.

Don’t bet the farm. It ain’t that simple.

A very big problem is that Step 1 and Step 4 appear to be the same to the uninformed and impatient customers who want a solution, and now. 

A Paradox: Simplistic looks a lot like simple.

Give me a few things that are easy to understand and easy to implement. One might even be a four colored 2X2 model! The only difference is that simplistic doesn’t work and simple does.

A discerning customer seeks to understand the difference. One way to tell is to look at the history of the proposed solution. Is it out of the blue with little or no scientifically agreed-upon evidence (simplistic) or the end of a multi-year long process of finding the truth through science and experience? 

A lot of noise, conflict and debate surrounds simplistic solutions. Consensus among experienced and trained professionals surrounds simple solutions.

At this moment in time, when we look collectively at talent management solutions, those most frequently reported as successful are at Stage 3 (Occom’s Razor) with a few at Stage 4 (Applying Essence).  Even so, there are still noisy Stage 1 (Shiny Bright Objects) Talent Management solutions constantly popping up.

The simple monster lives!