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The Future of Talent Development


Thu Sep 22 2016

The Future of Talent Development-559b63a6efd3321262b7dd21b2f9c2f0809713b97d834ca1a20aad6c9c322db2

Remember the “Great Man Theory”? It was originally espoused by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. It a nutshell, it asserted that history is shaped by the actions of “great men.” For Carlyle, what made a person great was some combination of charisma, intelligence, wisdom, political acumen, and so forth. The idea that single individuals—single leaders—matter most in organizational affairs gained great traction in many business cultures and, unfortunately, lives on today. I say “unfortunately” because the emerging business environment has made the “great man” obsolete. The future of talent development is about building the “great workforce.” 

For the last few decades, the management literature has focused much attention on the unprecedented complexity of the new business environment. One indication of the importance of this topic is the fact that scholars are inventing new words and phrases to describe it. Examples include: Permanent White Water, Wicked Problems, Adaptive Challenges, and my personal favorite, VUCA—an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. 


Solving Problems Is Essential 

In the new environment, the ability of an organization to solve problems is essential to overall performance for several reasons—but key ones are that the volume, complexity, and urgency of problems are increasing and the predictability of problems is decreasing. This situation challenges the problem-solving ability of any leadership cadre. 

In addition, we are seeing the emergence of a new type of problem that is both extremely complex and different from anything encountered before. These new problems (Grint calls them “wicked” problems) are so different that nothing in our prior experience is relevant to their solution—and, in fact, they may have no solution. Such problems can easily overwhelm the ability of any single mind—any single leader—to solve them. 

Although we are also seeing the emergence of new tools for problem solving (examples include, “futures” planning, deeper applications of systems thinking, the increased use of computer simulations and serious games, and more) many of these tools focus on building problem solving competence in individuals. While these and other techniques are important, they are insufficient in dealing with the most complex problems. What is missing is more focus on building the collective problem solving competence of the workforce. 

Simply said, problem solving is no longer about being “the smartest person in the room”—because no one is smart enough to face the new environment alone. The new problems demand better solutions than any individual can provide. They demand the collective knowledge, insight, expertise, and wisdom of the entire workforce.  The “great man” yields to the “great workforce.” 

A great workforce is different from a high performing workforce. A great workforce is not merely engaged—it is self-engaging. Members take personal responsibility for their engagement and performance. This workforce is creative, adaptable, customer-focused—and change-enabled. The great workforce provides a set of new capabilities which are business critical and beyond the abilities of single managers or executives.   


Organizations have long-noted the performance advantages of groups. For many tasks, groups outperform a similar number of individuals—and often by a substantial margin. However, some scholars are suggesting that specially trained and configured groups can do more than outperform individuals on routine business tasks. These groups can perform more complex tasks and create new competitive advantage. Examples include: creating new knowledge, accelerating enterprise-wide change and solving the most complex business problems. The key is unleashing the collective problem-solving power of the workforce. 

Collective Vs. Collaborative Problem Solving

How does collective problem solving unfold in a group or a workforce and how is it different from collaborative problem solving? For starters, collective problem solving is different from collaborative problem solving in several key ways relating to how a group is configured, trained, led, and how the problemsolving process unfolds. Let’s compare and contrast hypothetical processes for collaborative and collective problem solving. 

  • Collaborative Problem Solving. In collaborative problem solving, a group forms, establishes operating norms and identifies a business problem or problems to solve. Group members are briefed on the problem and form individual ideas on how best to solve it. In the group setting, ideas are discussed and refined, and the best ones are listed and prioritized on a “short list” so leaders can ultimately pick a solution. In the collaborative problem-solving process, group members often take a position and defend it. The role of the group facilitator is to ensure all possible solutions are identified and that the group builds a consensus around the priority of a “short list” of potential solutions. The short list represents the best thinking of individual group members. 

  • Collective Problem Solving. In collective problem solving, a group forms and is specially trained before the group process begins. Training includes a special way of interacting that involves deep listening, transparency, artful questioning and self-reflection. In addition, every effort is made to make the group as diverse as possible, underscoring the belief that diversity fuels problem solving. Group members are briefed on a problem and the problem-solving process begins. In this process, group members do not advocate for a particular solution. Instead, they listen, question, reflect and build upon each other’s ideas. An idea of one member often triggers new insights in other members which, when expressed, trigger more insight in other members and so on. As the team moves through the problem solving process, their interactions trigger deep, original problem-solving insights in each other. In this way, the group co-creates a solution that is more than the sum of the thinking of individual members. It is the best collective thinking of the group. 

Although work has been done in understanding and using collective problem solving (particularly by the action learning community), more research and experimentation is needed on how to apply this technique to the most complex problems and on how to use it more effectively in larger groups for more problem solving power. Collective problem solving is not needed for every problem, nor is it a substitute for executive judgment and insight. But it may offer organizations real help in addressing complex business problems and is certainly worthy of more study and experimentation. 

The notion of actively involving members of the workforce in solving the most complex and important business problems represents a fundamental shift in how problem solving is now performed in many organizations and has profound significance for both leadership development and workforce development. Even more, it challenges us to think about the workforce in a new and exciting way. 

For more ATD content on the future of talent development, check out the fall 2016 issue of CTDO magazine, essential insight for talent development executives.


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