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Scrambling: The New Theory of Experiential Development

By Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov

Traditional Development

Leaders in Human Resources have long known the secret to talent development. Segment your employees. Identify those with potential. Invest in their development, through experiences. Provide stretch assignments which force the development of new, untested muscles. And the greater the adversity, the better.

If the recipe was clear, so was the “secret sauce”. The best companies were intentional about the selection of assignments, and would strategically orchestrate movement between stretch assignments, balancing depth and breadth. We even had a word for it. Assignmentology.

Well, good luck with that!

Forced By Circumstance

Even prior to the pandemic, Talent Professionals experienced the gap between assignment management, and actual practice. Over time, talent shortages eroded the ideal that was “assignment management”. For example, we’ve all experienced the following …

  • The stretch assignment is available, but there was no talent we can move right now, or

  • We pull the assignee from their assignment, ahead of time, to fill a key vacancy. But before they’ve had the opportunity to master whatever it was we needed them to learn, or

  • We have the assignment and the high potential. But decide the complexity and volatility of the assignment (read .. the world we live in…) needs an experienced leader at the helm. The company couldn’t afford (read… risk) someone developing, and potentially failing, on the job.

One of the challenges of assignmentology was its manual nature: deconstructing roles, understanding the experiences they provided, aligning that with gaps in individual experiences. At the moment when technology makes this possible, including at scale, the scarcity of talent has rendered the curation of assignments at best “ad hoc”.

And that was then.

Fast forward one global pandemic and things just got harder.

Firstly, the pandemic drove employees out of the market. While this differs by role and industry, the last few years has seen groups of employees re-think work. In some roles and sectors, retirements are up. In others, workforce participation, of women especially, is down. The issue isn’t confined to those leaving the workforce. It includes those those that have decided to “downsize” their career, foregoing traditional career advancement on the basis that “YOLO”. It is easy to see why this may not be best environment for insisting on that stretch assignment. (In fact, every day has been a stretch in the last two years. Leaders are tired. And while we don’t know for sure, we hypothesize that the best leaders are probably the most tired. After all, they, more than most, rose to the occasion. But we digress…)

There is another obvious factor at play. We learnt that most of us can work from anywhere. Our desire for unique work schedules, worked from places of our choosing, is disrupting the market and making otherwise good jobs “uncompetitive” if they require relocation. And so the stretch assignment that required me to move countries, or even towns, is not that interesting. And there are plenty of companies that will give me work with no requirement to “up sticks”.

Either way, employees are in the driver’s seat, and can have career progression without the traditional development we’d have insisted on. And without the sacrifices that others had to make.

But why supply has been impacted, demand hasn’t. The talent shortage has reached unprecedented levels, at almost 3X the number of open positions than a decade ago.

Maybe Not So Bad

We can hear the die-hards now, “these faint-hearted candidates aren’t ‘talent’... the ambitious will always be open to that big, developmental challenge”. Maybe. But if you can advance, fast, without having to go through the maze of developmental assignments dreamt up by Human Resources, does that make you less of a ‘talent’? Actually, it makes you rational: I am in demand, I have the ability to progress, without ticking all the boxes and if I don’t do it here, I’ll just go somewhere else.

Farewell, assignment management!

Having grown up in the era of assignmentology, conceding that we have a decreasing ability to rely on strategically orchestrated movement was a hard to acknowledge. But over time, our point of view has evolved. This isn’t bad. Or good. It is a market. The best HR leaders know that. Instead of pining for the days of old, our role is to figure out “what now?”.

We call it “scrambling”, and it isn’t such a bad idea.


So, what’s scrambling?

Scrambling is rapid-response assignment management. Not the beautifully orchestrated set of roles, with incremental increases in scale and scope.

Instead of starting with the learning the candidate needs (heresy, we know… ) we start with the job the business needs doing. We have vacancies. And they are crippling.

The reality, then, is that we scramble. We scramble to answer the question, “who is willing to do this role right now?”.

And then, the more dynamic HR question. Knowing the role, what learning can we help extract from it?

The New Currency for HR Leaders

Sound like a subtle change? It isn’t.

Instead of ‘learning led’, this approach reflects today’s reality. We are scrambling to fill jobs. The first aspect of the ‘new currency’ for HR leaders is to be able to scramble faster than others, and fill a vacancy — which may or may not reflect an individual’s priority development need — and know enough about the talent and the composition of the work within a role to identify the focused, learning opportunities that it contains, even if they don’t align with a predetermined blue print.

This reflects the reality that employees are moving frequently. And while many assignments won’t meet the company’s developmental ‘ideal’, any assignment is likely to be relatively short-lived. Think of this as … rapid cycle times - you will get the next development opportunity pretty quickly.

But done well, the assignment will still have a development focus. The learning may not be curated … from small market, to mid size market, to large market … but rather … “here is the (albeit left field) challenge I have for you, and here’s what you’ll learn”.

Surprise! The outcome is talent won’t necessarily be as well rounded as we like. Which means HR leaders need another competency: building systems of support.

Assume Sergey is going to do an assignment. Not the one we planned. Way bigger. But it’s the one I’ve got. Ok, what’s the system of support? What must HR do (scramble) to put in place to maximize performance, minimize risk, and deliver on-going development?

Maybe Angela is doing “more of the same”. Maybe that puts us at risk of losing her. Ok, what’s the system of support? What must HR do (scramble) to put in place to maximize performance, minimize risk and deliver on-going development?

We live in a world where we are talent constrained and role rich. Employees are in the driver’s seat and will take the assignments they want, from what we have, and with less willingness to partake in our curated career. But we can promise variety. And challenge. And opportunity. We have to figure out how to extract learning from the roles that our talent want to take. This isn’t the systematic development of skills. And that’s ok.

The best companies will have a HR function which is sophisticated in assessing risks in assignment allocation, because the allocation to assignments no longer reflects past, systematic development. HR will have the skills and ability to analyze strengths and weaknesses, against the roles we have, and to ask “what can talent learn from this role” and “what is the system of support needed to make this person successful, despite my failure to have thoroughly prepared them for this moment?”

What a cool question to ask. And what a cool job for HR!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of any affiliated organizations .

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