The Synoptic Problem

15 12 2010

Missed out on my Monday morning bus-ride this week (which as an experience usually more closely resembles dashing out of control down a frozen rocky mountainside in a troika and which therefore makes writing my blog on my netbook on my lap both entertaining and time-limited – my rule is that I must finish and post before I get off…), so this is not the real deal. More a simple reflection, but one which anchors us back to the OS4Talent agenda.

I have borrowed the title from another field of research (hands up if you recognise it), but this is what I mean by it here: think of your favourite tool for understanding yourself and others better. It will either be a profiling tool of some kind; or, for those who hate profiling tools, it will be some kind of structured interaction, team-building exercise or whatever. Now think of your organisation, whether that is 3 people or 30,000. Now tell me: a) how easily can you assemble the data from your favourite tool for your entire organisation and b) how meaningful is it when you do. In other words, can you get a meaningful synoptic (literally “seeing [everything] together”) view of your organisation from your favourite tool. At sizes over 20, most team-building and interaction approaches will start to stumble, but what about profiling tools?

Now there is a genuine invitation to speak up in favour of your favourite tool here. I have tried without success to visualise what I would make of MBTI or DiSC / Thomas or Belbin or Insights or WAVE for a Sales Division of 300 people; but I may be missing something important. My impression is that when framed this way, the answer is simply “you are trying to do something with this tool it was never meant to accomplish”.

At the heart of our OS4Talent approach is a tool, the Birkman® Method, that was designed for precisely this application, i.e. understanding people in a social and organisational context, with no upper limit on how large the organisation or social context could be. To answer my own scenario, I have indeed looked synoptically at Birkman data from a Sales Division of 300 people and instantly been able to identify hugely significant attributes and characteristics of that group which explain performance and cultural issues they have been encountering. And no credit to me – an average 3-year old could spot the patterns (although I like to think they might struggle to articulate their significance).

So why am I writing a blog called OS4Talent? After 10 years working with the Birkman Method, I can’t understand why this tool, with its genuinely unique ability to measure and analyse organisational culture and capacity and to inform the management of talent isn’t yet as ubiquitous as getting electricity out of a socket in the wall. I have not yet found a situation where this particular “operating system” fails to deliver; but whether the answer is Birkman or a tool you know of and I don’t, here’s the real thing: isn’t this really important? Mapping, accurately, your organisation and being able to view and use that data as if it was your monthly management accounts, in order to make and implement better decisions?

Crossing the canyon… with multiple steps

7 12 2010

Risk, risk-profile, risk-averse, appetite for risk are all terms that get bandied about, and which tend to divide the world into those who will and those who won’t…well, risk! And I am not for a moment suggesting there isn’t an element of truth in this dichotomy; some people don’t like taking risks, period. But a more fundamental division may be around how we take on risk and, fundamentally, what taking risks means to us.

The Birkman Method includes a behavioural component called Challenge. It doesn’t, as you might imagine, measure whether or not you take on Challenges, but rather how you do so; and as such is an indicator of the attitude to risk I mentioned above.

People with a high score on Challenge are only as good as their last performance; furthermore, they are what they achieve (or attempt) and therefore to grow as a human being (which matters a lot to them) they need to be achieving new things. Success matters, but they don’t necessarily expect it the first time they attempt something.

People with a low score on Challenge know they are great at what they do. Growing as a human being is doubtless an incremental thing that comes with building success upon success. Here’s the thing: for low Challenge people, things they have never tried before are not obviously contributing to their growth – because they carry a heightened risk of failure. Failure diminishes success.

Can you see the difference: for one group, trying new things, despite the risk of failure, is where growth comes from; for the other group, trying new things increases the risk of failure and therefore is less likely to contribute to growth (developement, advancement etc). Here is what is fascinating: low Challenge people may take on huge risks; but unlike high (especially very high) Challenge people, they won’t take them on in a risky manner. They will instead do everything in their power to ensure that risk is managed (actually, that risk gets wrestled to the ground, cuffed and locked away in a maximum security cell with a double guard at all times).

Here is the practical application: throw away some of those one-size fits all management approaches.

“You must cross a canyon in a single bound.” Great idea for high Challenge people, bad idea if you are managing low Challenge. Low Challenge version is “to cross the canyon, find or build stepping stones at manageable intervals”.

“I always push people outside their comfort zone.” Good idea for high Challenge (they will thank you) but not for low (who may end up hating you). Low Challenge version is “I like to lead people a step at a time out of their comfort zone”.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but progress clearly depends on High Challenge people who try new things. Funnily enough, the easiest way to recognise Low Challenge people is that they have gravitas, exude quiet self-confidence and tend to over-achieve. Or at least, that is how you will perceive them; High Challenge people will seem more driven and less consistently successful – even though thay may achieve exactly the same amount. It is how they do it that differs…