For individuals and companies alike, survival often depends on understanding the limits of their experience and recognizing when fundamental assumptions need to change.

Some vivid examples are recounted in the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, by Laurence Gonzales (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003). For example, William Huskisson, a member of Parliament, was attending the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway on September 15, 1830. The new railroad featured the Rocket, the fastest train at the time. Huskisson was run over by the Rocket while crossing the tracks. The oncoming train was clearly visible, but he misgauged the speed, having never experienced anything traveling that fast.

“Man’s reflexes failed him in the midst of powers faster than the horse and the ox,” the author writes. Huskisson had unconsciously consulted his mental model to rate risk and reward. He then estimated (again outside of consciousness) that he could cross the tracks in time. But his mental model was rendered useless by a change in the environment brought about by a radical invention.

Might we be seeing some approaching locomotives in talent management?

In an earlier column, I noted PepsiCo’s shakeup of its traditional thinking about pivotal talent, which led the CEO to hire the head of the World Health Organization, Derek Yach, to create a “Good for You” culture. When strategy changes, the survivors must recognize when pivotal talent goes well beyond the existing set of jobs, capabilities, and leadership competencies.

To cite another case, IBM’s “locomotive” was not a massively new model, but rather viewed talent through a model from another discipline. IBM reframed its talent-management system as a supply chain and found it could pay off a $100 million investment and drastically improve talent-utilization rates. Utilization rates and resource flows are standard concepts in operations management, but when applied to talent management, they changed the conversation.

It became very obvious where leaders, with all good intentions, were actually hoarding talent. IBM leaders now could not ignore it if they were holding on to their best talent for the good of their region or unit, at the expense of preparing talent needed elsewhere. Employees could also clearly see what talents, skills, and capabilities were becoming “hot” prospects. Unlike the past, where leaders and employees often made decisions about careers with less data, now employees approached leaders with questions like, “I see that systems-integration capabilities are in great demand. How are you going to help me get the experience I need to compete for those opportunities?” For leaders accustomed to a traditional system of predictable career paths, and career information being largely in the hands of supervisors, that was the equivalent of a locomotive.

What if we change the entire idea that the boundary of the organization constrains talent planning? In our book, Transformative HR, my colleague Ravin Jesuthasan and I wrote about the Malaysian ministry called Khazanah Nasional (http://www.khazanah.com.my/), the government’s arm for strategic investments in new industries and markets. The quality of Malaysian leadership is obviously vital to the success of such investments, so Khazanah created a system through which organizations in Malaysia create cross-industry and cross-organization leadership opportunities. For example, if an organization doesn’t have a consumer-goods division, it can send one of its leaders to an organization that does, and receive in return a leader to work in its state-of-the-art R&D function.

The Khazanah case reveals the formidable challenges and opportunities in such a cross-organization leadership system. A significant factor in its success is changing the mind set of Malaysian leaders to see the organization boundary itself as permeable, in the interest of building stronger leaders for the future of the country and its economy.

One lesson from Deep Survival is that those who survive may be the ones who best understand the limits of their experience, and when their paradigm must change, or risk being hit by the oncoming locomotive. In the same way, organizations might do well to consider what today seem to be “radical” talent approaches that may be the key to thriving and surviving in a future world of permeable boundaries and shifting leadership requirements.

John Boudreau is a professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations. His more than 60 books and articles include Retooling HR, Beyond HR, and Transformative HR.

 

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