Why Talent and Innovation Programs Fail


My business partner Chris Yeh identified that fewer Americans are engaged at work than who believe the government is hiding aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. That’s literally true. (And the USA has the highest level of engagement in the world.) Study after study reveals that CEOs believe the ability to recruit and retain top talent is either their number one or number two biggest concern for their company’s future. The main complaint of employees around the world is the lack of career development opportunities within their organizations. (Culturesprout is a project aimed to address this issue.)

Oh, sure, companies promise unending opportunities and refer ambitious employees to a bunch of various programs  with promising names like “High Potential” and “Leadership Development,” and maybe if you’re in the small minority who are invited in… Meantime, the rest of you can take some online education courses, apply for jobs internally, blah, blah, blah.

Behind all those clever programs and online resources are people trying to make themselves valuable by helping to keep the talent pool stocked and engaged. (And I’ve been around long enough to know that they are among the first to be downsized. So how much is their company really valuing their work?)

It’s all a failure. Really, it is. Corporations are failing their employees.

Employees are persons, and each one is unique and complicated, and actually has their own ideas about what they want their life to be like, including their work life. They are not lab animals that predictably respond positively to appropriate stimuli.

“Disrupting HR” gets a huge amount of attention. Our friend Josh Bersin reports on disruptive ideas all the time. There are lots of good new disruptive vendors out there. Some of them whose leaders I know personally and whose work I respect, include Culture AmpReflektiveLighthousePatheer, and Rallyteam. They all deserve to be heard, at the very least. The future is actually available right now!

Another popular tactic for companies lately is to encourage innovation!  The idea is that companies tend to unintentionally discourage innovation—their policies, procedures, habits, culture, etc., get in the way, and employees need to feel empowered to think and act differently by inviting them to join innovation labs or programs, which likely will include hip and cool offices redolent of Google’s.

See the logic? Lack of career opportunities leads to disengagement, which leads to lack of innovation, which is bad for the company. So far so good, right? The thinking thus goes: let’s give permission to innovate (and gourmet food, and nap pods!), which will lead to a sense of career growth, which will lead to engagement.

That won’t work!

Employee development and innovation labs fail because they depersonalize the employee. Employees are persons, and each one is unique and complicated, and actually has their own ideas about what they want their life to be like, including their work life. They are not lab animals that predictably respond positively to appropriate stimuli—which is implicit in these kinds of programs.

The only way to “disrupt HR” is to start with individual employees, who, I remind you, are actually persons.

For example, my colleague Dr. Marla Gottschalk is leading an engagement for a very forward-thinking company to do something amazing: truly listen to each employee, learn their career aspirations and respect them, give them individualized development paths, and promise career transformation by working hard for the company. They are fully operationalizing The Alliance  framework, which was introduced in the bestselling book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (Reid HoffmanBen Casnocha, and Chris Yeh). I expect they’ll retain their top employees, reinvigorate them, achieve even greater success, and great people will be lining up to work there.

Why is it that CEOs think recruiting and retaining top talent is so strategically important, that everyone loves talking about “disrupting HR,” and yet most companies continue to treat their employees like lab animals, continually have recruiting challenges, continually lose their best employees and have disengaged workforces—even though, as I said, the future is actually available right now?

It’s because when most companies approach these problems by bringing in the disruptors, they end up sounding a lot like Steve Martin’s character in this clip.

We are asked to help to change everything—as long as it’s “anything in these three inches here, right in here… that includes the Chiclets but not the erasers.”

The future is available right now, for those visionary leaders who have the courage to go forward and leave their competitors in the dust. We disruptors are trying to find more of you.

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