Archives for August 2011

Teaming for Today’s Complex Challenges

People working collectively make organizations hum. No matter the task – a radical productivity improvement, a breakthrough innovation, the development of an exceptional customer service culture – people must join together and invest their heads, hearts, and wills to get the job done. When people, with various and relevant skills and perspectives, join around challenges that matter, their collective efforts produce innovations that get implemented.

At its core, facilitating teamwork is about creating space for people to collectively design and execute smart and doable strategies. Reacting to technological and social trends, savvy leaders are placing greater emphasis on learning, knowledge sharing, and collaboration in an effort to develop, access, and integrate the talents of their colleagues.

Today’s teams are challenged with high-stakes issues. Gone are the days when teams could be formed to implement pre-set solutions ordained from above, or when formal and stable teams could operate on the basis of consensus and cohesion. As author Thomas Friedman, writing of the dynamics of an increasingly “flat” world, pointed out, “the next layers of value creation… are becoming so complex that no single firm or department is going to be able to master them alone.” (2005)

Teams are confronted with ambiguous, hard-to-define challenges, involving multiple sets of stakeholders with competing interests, biases, and ways of working. These initiatives require members to learn from each other and from outside experts, to apply and leverage knowledge in new ways, and to go through iterations of collecting and analyzing data before a solution emerges.

I refer to such scenarios as “jamais vu” challenges, because team members have never been there or done that. They are complex in both the tasks to be carried out and the relationships to be developed. These differ from “déjà vu” been there, done that challenges, in which the team members in defined relationships have direct knowledge to apply. Jamais vu challenges abound: healthcare reform, environmental management, global warming, and mergers and acquisitions are all systemic dilemmas that require team members to facilitate complex relationships while forging a new path.

Jamais vu initiatives require a new model of teamwork and collaboration. These collaborations involve members from multiple disciplines, sites, and levels, with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Such teams often work at an accelerated pace, and members must forge relationships to gain perspective and commitment from external experts and stakeholders.

While decisive action – often stemming from the perspective of a single leader or expert – was the focus for traditional teams, discovery, learning, innovation, and distributed action-taking are the fuel for jamais vu teams. In this context, effective teamwork has shifted from a cohesion-based model to a learning-based model to enable streamlined formation, focused discovery, and option generation, experimentation, and energized action-taking.

How do leaders go about organizing for jamais vu challenges? In our book, Building Smart Teams, Carol Beatty and I report on the findings of Carol’s research which narrows the success factors of high performing teams to three critical sets of process and skills. These processes and skills provide a foundation for today’s learning based collaborative climate.

Team Management Practices enable people to define their task and connect to one another

While teams have traditionally focused on their own insular work and processes, today’s teams must take a whole-systems perspective and engage system players in the learning journey. Accordingly, they are more focused on getting a holistic understanding of the challenge, securing required resources and expertise, and defining the process members will follow. Today’s teams are often disbanded as soon as the task is completed. So the focus is on enabling the right people to engage and connect to core tasks as the team’s work unfolds.

Key steps to team formation include:

  • getting a full understanding of the challenge from all relevant points of view, with key success factors;
  • carefully and deliberately defining who needs to lead the initiative and who else needs to be on the team given their expertise, role, or perspective;
  • identifying other stakeholders who need to be engaged for their input, expertise, or feedback;
  • defining the process for fruitfully engaging in this work, including the right tools and technologies; and
  • defining a few key protocols for communicating, decision making and holding each other to account. I refer to this phase of the team’s core work as the define stage.

A robust problem solving process enables team members to work in dynamic alignment

While traditional teams relied on a leader for direction and alignment, today’s teams need to be supported by a robust process as they tackle complex, multi-pronged issues that do not fit within the jurisdiction of a single leader. The process becomes the glue that aligns people around core tasks, and that defines who will be involved and how along the way, including when to consult external experts and other stakeholders.

A good process enables members to share their expertise, fulfill their roles, and remain in alignment as the work unfolds. It also allows for the requisite group learning and resourcefulness. In my work, I employ a four-stage process that enables members to engage in activities that move from:

Defining the task: Setting the focus, scope, and boundaries of the initiative, as well as the engagement strategy of who to involve and how to link key stakeholders to the challenge and each other. Discovery: Collecting and analyzing data to uncover the core issues that need to be addressed and the options for renewal. Designing Strategies: Developing, testing, and refining options into prototypes and straw model solutions. Doing: Codifying recommendations for action, seeking approvals, and communicating plans and involvement strategies for implementation.

Each stage builds from and becomes a platform for each subsequent stage, so that members learn their way forward. Decision makers do not decide on a solution until they have first generated and tested options. Similarly, options are generated from the insights that were generated during discovery. The questions for discovery and the sources for answering them were generated from the way the initiative was ultimately defined.

Communications and conflict handling skills provide an orientation for learning and innovation

Two related orientations are important for effective teamwork and collaboration in jamais vu-land: communications patience and conflict handling skills. Patient communicators are naturally open and curious. Rather than prematurely judging and dismissing data that conflict with their own, they work hard to accept and incorporate relevant views, knowledge, and talents. Patient communicators are adept at sharing their insights and opinions. They are masterful at employing analogies and stories to convey their knowledge in a form that others can relate to.

In turn, members appreciate that conflicting ideas and ways of working are par for the course and do not judge or dismiss members who think or work in ways different than their own. When potentially thorny issues arise, such as a missed deadline, members surface the issues and deal with them. When the team is stuck, members slow down and embark on a strategy to resolve the impasse rather than plowing ahead.


Faced with high stakes and ambiguous challenges, today’s team leaders can employ new methodologies to enable members to develop a holistic view of their task, involve the right people, and engage in a process that facilitates learning, innovation and aligned action. Armed with new insights about leading teams in jamias vu-land, leaders can create the space for enabling and energizing members to deliver solutions that fit the challenge.

About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott, Queen's IRC Facilitator




Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting.  When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions.  Brenda is an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, and Organizational Design. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.  Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance.

Further Reading

Beatty, C., & Barker Scott, B. (2004) Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance, Sage Publications.

Friedman, T, (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Ontario experts pessimistic about the future: Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast

Last year, OPSEU brought together business, labour, government, and community agencies for an in-depth exploration of the possible futures for Ontario with Ontario 2020. The Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast has now been released, which shows that experts are concerned and pessimistic about the future of the province.

Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper was a member of the steering committee for the Ontario 2020 project, which included a two-day conference in Toronto. Experts in four areas – community services, the economy, education and health care – were invited to evaluate how the province will develop in the next decade. Four possible scenarios of the future were assessed for each of the key areas.

The practical objective of the Ontario 2020 project was to make Ontario organizations more effective by focusing on the need to anticipate a wholly different province in 2020. The steering committee was founded by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. Thomas said it’s important to stop the finger-pointing and blame over the past, and focus on the challenges and opportunities in the future. “No one else is doing this important work. To succeed as organizations and a province we must begin to take it on.”

One of the panelists summed up their view of Ontario in 2020: “I believe that we can imagine a great future, but many are pessimistic about what lies before us.”


Talent Management, Beyond the Buzzwords

The ubiquitous term “war for talent” was coined in 1997 by management consultants McKinsey & Co. The consultants had conducted a year-long study and had concluded that the most important corporate resource over the following two decades would be talent.1 The demand for smart, technologically savvy, and globally astute businesspeople, they said, would outstrip the supply. The search for the best and brightest was to become an ongoing battle; not only would organizations need to become better equipped to recruit skilled talent, they also would be challenged to retain them.

A decade and a half later, how well does that outlook hold up? Organizations compete today in a global environment, and traditional differentiators such as technology, physical resources, and innovation are easily replicated. Talent has, indeed, emerged as a key source of competitive advantage, and the imminent shortage of skilled businesspeople remains acute; if anything, it has gotten worse. An aging population of baby boomers and the tendency for Generations X & Y to frequently change jobs has made it increasingly difficult to attract and retain skilled knowledge workers. Leadership pipelines have been further damaged by reorganizations and downsizing that occurred as a result of the recession.

How have organizations responded to these challenges? Research conducted by Bersin & Associates2 shows that talent management is a top concern among HR professionals, and yet only five percent of organizations are confident that they have a clear talent management strategy and operational procedures in place. The reality is that a strong commitment to human capital management will separate winning organizations from the rest, and those that excel at implementing talent management strategies will gain a strategic advantage.

So what does it take to create an effective talent management strategy? First, it requires executive-level sponsorship and support. Senior leaders must communicate the importance of talent management as an organizational priority, and be actively involved in the process.

Second, it requires a clear understanding of corporate vision and direction, because to be effective, HR strategy must be grounded in business strategy. And to be respected as partners, HR practitioners must fully understand and support the requirements of the business they serve.

Competencies and talent reviews

By understanding the needs of the business, now and into the future, HR leaders can identify competency requirements that reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will be necessary to support strategic objectives. The competencies must also reflect the corporation’s values and culture. Otherwise, skilled individuals are hired who simply are not a good fit for the organization. Once defined, these competencies must be embedded in all of the HR processes, including recruitment, selection, development, and evaluation.

The next step is to segment the workforce to identify critical roles. These are key positions that exert an important influence on operational activities or the strategic objectives of the organization. Without these roles, the organization would be unable to effectively meet its business objectives. Critical roles are not confined to senior levels, and extend to include key positions throughout the organization.

Once critical roles are identified, it is necessary to conduct a talent review. How are staff members currently performing? What is their potential? Keep in mind that current and past performance are strong indicators of potential, but the two are not synonymous. In fact, according to the Human Capital Institute, more than 70 percent of today’s top performers lack the critical attributes essential to success in future roles.3 People who perform well in their current roles can fail miserably if they are promoted beyond their level of competence.

When determining potential, steer clear of manager evaluation bias by using objective assessment data. Many organizations make use of the nine-box methodology to visually represent where individuals fall relative to performance and potential. This can be helpful to support leadership roundtable discussions where performance and potential are openly discussed and calibrated.

Avoiding the crown prince/princess syndrome

Next to factor in is the question of transparency. Should people be told whether or not they have been identified as “high potential”? Doing so allows high potential talent to be recognized and valued. It increases retention and creates a heightened accountability for development. It also provides people with an opportunity to “opt out”, since not everyone will be willing to invest the time and energy required to develop their potential. If communication is not handled effectively, however, it can lead to false expectations and the “crown prince/princess” syndrome. It can also create unwanted stress and pressure for those who are identified as “high potential.” And what about people who are not identified? What can be done to ensure they feel valued and not discounted?

Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to communicate this information openly must relate to the organizational culture. Does the organization value and espouse open communication and transparency? If so, the approach taken to talent management needs to be aligned. If opting for transparency, equip managers with the training and tools necessary to support them in communicating the messages effectively.

Once the talent review has taken place, a gap analysis should be undertaken.

  1. Are there any critical roles that are currently unfilled?
  2. What are the organization’s plans for growth?
  3. Where do you anticipate attrition and who is eligible for retirement over the next five to 10 years?

This is where succession planning comes into consideration. Are there capable people available to backfill critical roles immediately? If not, are there any who could step into the role on a temporary basis until a suitable replacement can be found? Are there people who have the potential to take on the role in the future? Where do gaps exist?

To fill these positions, the options are to buy, build, or borrow. In other words, talent to fill key roles can be acquired, it can be developed from within the current workforce, or the roles can be outsourced or filled through the use of a contingent workforce.

Recruiting talent: target marketing

In situations where there are no staff identified as having the necessary potential for the roles in question, or where the time required for development is too long to fill the identified gaps, then “buying” talent is an appropriate strategy. To be effective at recruiting desired talent in a competitive environment, you need to consider employer brand image. What is the value proposition for employees, and how does it get communicated? Some smart and savvy organizations have started to customize their employer brand to meet the needs of different demographic segments. Recruiting material and language can be differentiated to market to multiple generations and cultures. Consider various recruitment strategies, depending on the desired target market. These may include internal referrals, on-campus recruitment, website ads, recruiting firms, or the use of social media. When making selection decisions, assess candidates against the competency requirements using best practice methodology, including standardized behavioural interviews and assessment tools.

Once desired talent is acquired, invest in orientation and on-boarding efforts. In the past, the probationary period was one in which the employer assessed the employee’s degree of fit for the role and the organization. Today, it has also become the window during which employees assess their level of satisfaction with the employer and the organizational culture. During this time, if employees have not felt a meaningful connection with the organization and their peer group, and if they do not clearly understand the vision and how they fit within it, it is very likely that they will leave. This is particularly true for Generation Y, soon to be the largest demographic group in Canada’s workforce.

Building from within: understand your development requirements

In situations where it is possible to “build” or develop staff from within to fill key roles, the critical questions are what knowledge, skills or abilities are missing, and what is the most effective way to develop them?  Managers and assessment data can provide insight into development requirements, but 360-degree feedback is also a useful tool, because the people who interact regularly with high-potential employees are often in the best position to identify their areas of strength and opportunities for improvement.

When it comes to constructing development plans, apply the 70/20/10 rule. The best development plans are based 70 percent on learning and development that occurs through on-the-job experience, 20 percent on feedback from others and from observing and working with mentors and role models, and 10 percent from formal training and course work. Many organizations pair high potential staff with coaches and mentors to accelerate their development.

It’s also important to structure action learning experiences that will give these employees exposure to senior leadership and critical roles and assignments. These might include stretch assignments, special projects, job shadowing and cross training. In a global organization, high potentials will benefit from opportunities to work abroad. In order to provide necessary exposure to key roles, it is critical to establish a culture that supports the development of high potentials by allowing for the free flow of talent across the enterprise.

In addition to focusing on development for high potentials, consider the development needs for the broader organization. Remaining effective in today’s changing times requires ongoing development for people at all levels, even if the intention is for them to remain in their current roles.

To engage and retain desirable talent, staff need to feel they are making a valued contribution that the organization recognizes and rewards. This is why it is important for people to understand where they fit within the corporate strategy, and how they are contributing to it. Adequate compensation and rewards are valuable, but there are other factors to consider in order to maximize retention. Career development is a key driver of employee engagement, particularly for Generations X and Y. If people don’t feel they are being developed and given opportunities to grow, they are likely to leave.

Strong leaders understand the importance of having regular career conversations with staff members to understand what they are interested in, what areas they want to develop, and how they can be of support. Career development doesn’t necessarily imply vertical progression, as many staff will be motivated by lateral moves that offer an opportunity to develop skills and be exposed to different areas of the business.

Finally, to be effective and respected, HR must measure and evaluate the results of the investment in talent management. There are many measures that can be used to track and monitor progress. These include:

  1. the length of time required to fill vacancies;
  2. the ratio of key positions for which no internal replacement is available relative to the total number of key positions;
  3. the percentage of key roles that are filled internally;
  4. external hires as a percentage of total hires;
  5. average performance ratings for new employees in critical positions; and
  6. turnover statistics within key roles.

Keep in mind that it’s useful to know how the organization is performing on these measures before new strategies and approaches are implemented, so that you can compare results and measure the return on investment. By taking this approach, HR will be in a position to build credibility and demonstrate value as a strong strategic partner in the business.


1 The original yearlong study, entitled “The War for Talent,” was conducted in 1997. Its authors later published a book of the same name, which was based on updated research conducted during 2000. See Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod, The War for Talent, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

2 Josh Bersin, “Talent Management: State of the Industry,”, June 2008.

3 Human Capital Institute, “Is Your Talent Pipeline at Risk? Engaging High Potentials,”, April 2011.


Diane Locke is Senior Partner in the consultancy Ellis Locke and Associates.

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