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Update Talent Management Practices for a VUCA World

January 20, 2021 Leadership
David DeFilippo Reworked Talent Management Contributor
By David DeFilippo

2020 challenged many of our professional and personal conventions.

The pressure put on organizations and their human capital has been like no other in recent history by virtue of the pandemic’s impact on our working lives. Shifts from customary workplace approaches, such as going to an office and interacting in person with colleagues, changed the relationship between managers and employees.

It happened suddenly and without a playbook of past lessons or best practices to draw from, and left leaders and individual employees to discern the best ways to work and collaborate in order to achieve results for their organizations.

Our recent situation may best be described with the term VUCA (an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complexity and ambiguous). The concept of VUCA traces its roots to military training and the U.S. Army War College, but has come to be more contemporarily used in organizational leadership training. It became more commonplace in corporations following disruptive economic events, such as the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the 1990s and the Great Recession of 2007-08, as organizations diagnosed and solved problems using this new framework.

In short, the challenges imposed by our increasingly VUCA world require the ability to learn, adapt and develop new capabilities. That capacity is central to operating in the current situation caused by the global pandemic and will be instructive for the next challenge that comes our way. Organizations should re-evaluate their talent management practices to meet the moment.

As mentioned in a previous article focused on talent management, the nature of human capital practices are to establish systematic and sustainable processes focused on optimizing an organization’s capabilities, and in this way build muscle memory to withstand future disruptive events. Talent management is comprised of a dozen or so well-established practices, so let’s re-examine a few to address and adjust for the current VUCA environment.

Performance Management

The performance management process is the cornerstone of organizational, team and individual alignment. It works through the integrated process of setting goals, holding progress checks, providing feedback and culminates with an annual review.

This practice deserves attention and adjustment in our current dynamic environment. As you move forward toward a new business as usual, here are some questions and adjustments to consider for each performance management practice.

DimensionQuestions Practices
Goal Setting
  • Is setting annual goals still realistic?
  • What is an appropriate duration to provide focus and alignment?
  • Provide focus over a shorter duration such as monthly or quarterly periods to make meaningful progress. 
Progress Checks 
  • How often is progress evaluated?
  • How often are goals re-assessed for relevance?
  • Whose responsibility is it to course correct? 
  • Regularly dedicate a one-on-one meeting to a progress check.
  • Use this check to assess progress made and which goals remain relevant.
  • Establish bi-lateral accountability to make adjustments.
  • Revise goals to ensure focus on most relevant deliverables.
Feedback 
  • How can feedback be used as a motivational practice?
  • What are the best ways to individualize feedback?
  • Integrate feedback into progress checks by using a framework so there is a consistent approach to these discussions.
  • Example: Review “keep doing” and “change doing” areas.
  • Example: Ask "What’s going well and where would you like support?”
Annual Review
  • How can a year with significant change be appropriately captured?
  • Frame the annual review as a story with several chapters to capture the changes and adjustments over time.
  • Provide details for each chapter that describe the original goals, adjustments made and learnings captured.
  • Evaluate results equally with the behaviors to show that both matter.

Critical Roles

More than ever, organizations must be focused on the core competencies and capabilities that provide them with competitive advantage and differentiation in their industries and markets.

An organization’s people and their associated skills are the critical link to high performance during normal times. That's no different during this current VUCA period, but regardless here are some questions and practices to consider as organizations move forward.

Dimension  Questions Practices
Key Positions
  • What are the roles that create the most value (e.g., shareholders, clients, etc.)?
  • Which roles make up the organization's “secret sauce” and differentiation?
  • How relevant are these traits in the current state?
  • How will these traits need to evolve in the future?
  • Identify roles that have historically created the most value and if that remains true.
  • Determine if there are new or other roles that are adding more value in the current VUCA state.
  • Isolate the capabilities that are emerging as newly relevant to address current challenges.
Key People
  • Who are the best performers?
  • Who shows the future promise of growing potential?
  • How can the best performers with the most potential be accessed to address challenges?
  • Deploy the individuals who have demonstrated competence with new skills.
  • Identify those who have shown an aptitude to learn.
Unsung Heroes 
  • How can atypical talent be identified?
  • What future solutions can this talent segment provide?
  • Ask for volunteers to complete new tasks.
  • Use the addition of new tasks for career development.

Movement 

With revised organizational goals defined and an updated assessment of the talent and skills needed to work differently to address the current challenges, a renewed talent movement plan can solve for an organization's capacity and capability challenges.

Dimension Questions Practices
Capacity
  • Where does the organization need more volume to address new or evolving tasks?
  • Balance supply and demand issues with a combination of temporary and permanent moves.
Capability
  • Where does the organization need new skills to address new or evolving tasks?
 
  • Redeploy and train employees whose roles are less relevant to those of increasing importance.
  • Establish an apprentice or mentoring system to practice on the job.

At the intersection of our recent experiences with what has been a VUCA time and the enduring importance of an organization’s human capital is what will ostensibly become our new or revised normal.

By utilizing these tried-and-true talent practices combined with adjustments to those methods for our current unpredictable and dynamic situation, organizations can learn and adapt in order to avoid becoming FUBAR, to borrow another military acronym.

About the Author

David DeFilippo is an executive coach, leadership development and talent management consultant with more than 25 years of experience in strategic human capital, leadership development and talent management. He is an executive coach in Harvard Business School's Executive Education program and former chief people and learning officer at Suffolk Construction.

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