Lucy Adams
December 7, 2021
Reading time: 10 minutes
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As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer light-touch, agile and less perfect solutions to the challenges we face.

Messy HR has a number of features that differentiates it from the traditional neater version;

  • It avoids ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions and prefers customised approaches based on the specific needs and preferences of its customers
  • It avoids big programmatic solutions and prefers small, incremental, organic change
  • It rarely mandates or insists upon compliance and prefers to build participation through effective marketing strategies
  • It uses smart cognitive and emotive change levers rather than believing a process can change behaviours

So, what do these messy HR solutions look like in practice? I thought it would be useful to look at one of our most popular ‘neat’ HR processes – talent management and compare it to the newer messier alternative.

The neat approach to talent management The traditional neat approach is all about the annual completion of the 9 Box Grid as part of our annual talent review, seeing this as the complete picture of talent strength.

The leaders I have worked with who seemed to enjoy the Annual Talent Review were always those who got a kick from structure and process rather than the great people leaders. The latter were able to do the exercise fairly quickly, but it didn’t create any real value for them as they already had a clear picture in their mind about their people and some idea about how they were going to develop, manage or reward each of them. The leaders who enjoyed the process of neatly categorising were typically the ones who did little with the results and saw the activity as being completed the moment they placed the last name on the grid. We know that great talent management is all about movement – moving up, around, in, out and yet the 9 Box Grid often fails to generate that movement and becomes more about allocation. I can see that having a snap shot of your senior teams at a point in time might be useful as a wake-up call or a reassurance but not much more and, given the inaccuracy of that snap shot, why bother to do even that?

It’s not unusual for talent reviews in larger organisations to take several months to complete. Not only is this time consuming for questionable results, it just doesn’t mirror the true pace of most organisations. Every Talent Review I’ve ever produced was always out of date by the time it was complete and leaders who want to move quickly to recruit or promote are justified in their irritation at the time it takes to get a perfect picture.

So, we spend crazy amounts of time and effort producing a complicated (but neat!) grid that is inaccurate and doesn’t add value. Not a great use of time at best and at worst, yet another HR activity that fails to add value and damages our credibility. Finally, messier alternatives are emerging with much greater impact.

Thumbtack in calendar concept for busy, appointment and meeting reminder

So what’s the ‘Messy’ Alternative to the Annual Talent Review? Firstly, it’s not annual! Instead we’re seeing much more fluid and dynamic talent processes and interventions that don’t have a rigid and irrelevant timetable. Approaches like Western Union’s approach where they get clusters of leaders together for an hour a month to ‘talk talent’. No documentation to fill in, no 9 box grids – just conversations about their teams. I’ve always found that most leaders like to talk about their people, they just don’t like doing the paperwork. Getting leaders to discuss talent on a regular basis helps them get better at it too.

Secondly, we’re seeing greater customisation to reflect the different needs of the talent themselves. At 3M, the HR team identified a number of different segments based on the employees’ main motivation for working at 3M. Three examples of these clusters include employees who are:

“In it for my life”—those motivated by alternative work arrangements, as in “I have a life.”

“In it to win it”—those motivated by a fast-paced, highly challenging, risk-taking environment.

“In it to experience it”—those motivated by developmental stretch assignments.

The clusters provide managers with the ability to tailor programs to various employee needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to career development.

Thirdly, talent management is much less about focusing on an elite few who have been anointed during the talent management process but instead about creating an environment where employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own career development. Initiatives such as Nielsen’s ‘Ready to Rotate’ where employees are encouraged to flag when they believe they are ready to do something different is a great example of this change of ownership.

Finally, messier talent management is all about regular conversations between a line manager and their team, not the once a year career discussion at the annual appraisal. Numerous organisations are now embracing this less structured approach and encouraging leaders to have frequent check-ins which include discussions about career development instead.

Messy HR is often going to be harder sell to our Execs than the neater one. Providing proof of leadership capabilities or talent bench strength feels good because it offers the seductive illusion of certainty. Advocating approaches where there are no guarantees, where ‘it depends’, where it takes longer and where it’s harder to measure may meet with greater resistance but it’s honest and in the long run will deliver greater results. I believe the truly impactful HR teams are the ones who are brave enough to promote ‘messy’ in a world that craves ‘neatness’.

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