An obsession with talent could be a sign of a lack of obsession with the system

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Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article called “The Talent Myth”, which appears in his book What the Dog Saw.  In this article, he discusses companies that obsess over getting the top talent and the consequences of this.  He focuses on Enron, and how it sought obsessively to attract and promote those with the most talent, which, amongst other things, resulted in a high degree of turnover within the company and made it difficult to figure out who actually was the best talent.  In the article he asks:

“How do you evaluate someone’s performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation?  The answer is that you end up doing performance evaluations that aren’t based on performance.” (What the Dog Saw, p. 363)

Does this describe your organization?

I’ve recently written about how many organizations go through a painful, angst-ridden and rhetorically charged process of identifying who the top performers are in an organization.  Different managers assert their cases and advance some employees as “high potentials” and others as “needs improvement.”

This effort inures the concept that there is some sort of truth about an individual performer in comparison to her peers, and that this is relationship is static.   Or, when it comes to annual reviews, true for at least one more year.

The process of deciding who’s on top and who needs improvement is an ongoing assertion that talent is the most important thing.  If you can get more talented people, the more successful you will be.  That is the thesis that this activity of ranking employees seems to advance.

But as Malcolm Gladwell’s article shows, this isn’t such a great idea, and it’s a weak thesis at best.  There really is no way to judge performance in a highly evolving situation, and the judgment quickly moves from who has the most talent to who appears to have the most talent or who claims to have the most talent.  As I showed in my article On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees, such decisions are usually made by tertiary impressions rather than a first hand examination of performance.

It’s a management short cut – the notion that if we have the top people, then everything will just fall into place.  But for some reason, this rarely seems to work out.

What’s the alternative?  Instead of an obsession with the talent, why not an obsession with the system in which the talent (whether high or low) operates? Instead of looking only at the capability of the individuals on the team, look at the systems and processes that have been developed for them to operate under.

As a simple example, imagine that you have hired the indisputably best software developer in the world.  Then you give the developer no computer, no desk, no network, no development environment, no requirements, etc.  This software developer would be rather terrible at software development indeed. The system that the software developer needs to work in is non-existent.

She may be able to put some of these things in place, but still would look pretty poor as a developer compared to average developers with desks, computers, and a development environment.

To make the example less extreme, let’s say that yes, the software developer now has a computer, network and desk, but the business requirements are vague, the development environment is buggy and slow, changes come in all the time, other developers break the code, people in test complain about something that happened last year, others feel comfortable interrupting the developer, people change their minds, and a bad boss yells at him for falling behind.  Again, the software developer, no matter how talented, will be a pretty poor software developer, and will not likely develop good software.

So should a management team obsess over top talent?  Or should a management team obsess over the system, and let the talent – whatever level it is – shine?   How about a management team get together and try to stack rank the work atmospheres that are found in the organization.  Who created the best one?  Who does the most to take away obstacles?  Who has a system that doesn’t require individual heroics or top talent to get something done?

Perhaps one year those organizations that obsess about who’s on top and who’s on bottom should not look at individual rankings and look more closely at the systems in which those who are operating.

Spend a long time looking at the systems – work flows, business processes, teamwork, amount of focus time, equipment, work environments — and ask whether they are enabling top performance.  This will certainly be a more useful effort than trying to identify who it is that is the best within a broken system.

Does your organization put more of an emphasis on the individual, or the systems in which the individuals work?  What examples have you seen of this?


Related Articles:

What a manager can do if the big boss puts a tag on an employee

More reasons the big boss’s feedback on an employee is useless

On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees

Managers are the most high impact trainers in an organization

How to be collaborative rather than combative with your employees – and make annual reviews go SOOO much better




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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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