25 yards of Team Building, please: changing how organisations buy assessments

18 10 2010

Talking to a friend and colleague from the US last week, he commented on the way large organisations buy assessments. Actually, the give away was the term “assessment buyers”… like “media buyer” or “office-supplies buyer”. Essentially the mindset seems to be almost along the lines of, “senior management expects us to use assessments, we buy x assessments per y personnel, check the box on the quarterly return, job done.”

Someone somewhere in the organisation is trying to accomplish something worthwhile with those assessments – better recruitment, better management of talent, building a team sorting out a workplace problem, whatever. They get to use whatever the assessment buyer buys (or specifies) for them. Fair enough, as far as it goes; that is how things work in a large organisation.

But here is the huge lost opportunity: a) why on earth is the assessment buyer treating the assessment of the company’s most valuable asset as it they were buying pencils and ignoring b) the opportunity to build over time a valuable map of the organisation’s talent and strengths? What do I mean?

Piecemeal assessment means that even if a great tool has been deployed to solve an important problem, that is the end of the story. A one-off purchase for a one-time return. Next time some or all of those people are involved in a situation where assessment needs to be used, either the same tool will be deployed again, or a new one; but either way, there will have been little if any value carried forward from the previous episode (except, usually, some increase in the employee cynicism triggered whenever there is a lack of joined up thinking: “here we go again”).

The positive alternative is to seek out and deploy a tool or suite of complementary tools which can be used across all situations (recruitment, appraisal, promotion, career development, coaching etc), and to keep coming back to the data collected already, both in the sense of “deploying once and using often per employee”; and in terms of watching trends over time, planning change programmes, post M&A integration, strategy, whatever. You won’t have a picture of your whole organisation the first time you deploy your selected tool or suite of tools for a 15-person team-building event; but you might be surprised how quickly you start seeing a map of your whole organisation come together, with key cultural or behavioural themes emerging. To senior management (remember them? we mentioned them in the first paragraph) that kind of data is solid gold. The mid-level manager achieves their immediate goal – but the whole organisation benefits as well.

Can you do this with every tool that is out there? Sadly not. Here is a short checklist of assessment properties you need to be looking for:

  • Stability of data over time for the individual (if the same person completing the assessment next week will come out significantly differently to how they did last week, forget it). 3-5 years plus should be a minimum if you intend to use this to build a picture of the organisation .
  • The tool needs to allow for accurate comparison between individuals. This may seem obvious, but very many of the well-known tools don’t do this.
  • Ideally, use a tool primarily designed for, and proven through, use in organisations. A tool developed for a PhD thesis, using a group of undergrad students as the survey sample, may not tell you something useful in an organisation setting.
  • Choose empirically-based assessments (i.e. based on research that establishes a relationship between actual behaviours and how people show up in the assessment) over theory-driven assessments (i.e. tools that categorise people according to a theoretical model) – unless you are prepared to stake your success on the particular theoretical construct involved.
  • Look for a report establishing reliability and validity for the instrument and check that it compares well to alternatives. And always ask yourself if you are seeing a great tool – or just great marketing.

Cherished Core Value? Or Flimsy Excuse?

9 09 2010

I was going to write something about putting sacred cows on the barbeque, but realised this was inappropriate not just because of its potential to offend those for whom “sacred cow” isn’t just a handy metaphor, but also speaking as someone who has lost 23kg in the past 15 months by following a plant-based (and entirely cow-free) diet. (Read The China Study by Colin Campbell and visit John McDougall’s site to find out more).

So I am stuck for a punchy metaphor but here is the thing: I keep running into cherished core values in organisations which have in fact become their excuse for poor performance, failure to change, bizarre structures, failure to confront, etc etc etc.

So – how do you work out when (sorry – can’t help myself) that hitherto cherished core value should actually be tossed on the barbeque?

It is not that hard if you go back to basics. “What is our mission and who do we serve?” When that is clear, simply look at the “core value” in question in the cold light of day and ask yourselves, “how does [core value] help us AS AN ORGANISATION to deliver on our mission to the people we serve?” Arrive at anything less than “this positively and practically helps us to deliver on the mission to the people we serve, far outweighing any downside” (with concrete examples of both the pluses and minuses) and you should be pouring lighter fluid on the charcoal briquettes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about “our people matter” or similar here. If you have that as a core value – and you act consistently upon it – that will help to deliver any mission you care to name. How you act on that core value does of course matter;  “our people matter so we never confront them or never make any changes to the location of their cheese” is doubletalk that will ultimately doom your people and your organisation!