ATD Blog

Maintaining Continuity and Inspiring Innovation in Succession Planning

Monday, August 11, 2014

Many people talk about succession planning these days—a discussion that’s driven (at least in part) by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.

Succession planning seems to consist of identifying high potential employees and grooming them for the next level of responsibility by providing specialized development experiences.

But by focusing narrowly on high potentials, an organization may actually decrease its broad “bench” strength, making succession more difficult. It’s better to have lots of people growing and prepared to advance than just a few.

Moving beyond that issue, though, is this question: What does it mean to “succeed” someone? This is an interesting and challenging balancing act.

On the one hand, most organizations want the next person to maintain continuity by carrying on the strategies and processes of the predecessor with minimal change and disruption. On the other hand, some organizations want the next person to bring new energy and insight into the leadership role.


The best way to get the best of both of these—continuity and innovation—is to understand and manage the elements that need to be stable versus those that should be open to innovation.

Purpose is the foundation for stability for an organization. Having a collective core purpose gives everyone the alignment needed to ensure continuity. As a result, good succession programs should concentrate on ensuring that everyone is aligned with the purpose.


Once purpose is established, developing the successor’s abilities as a self-directed learner and leader is the foundation for innovation for an organization. Self-directed learners and leaders are impatient with the conventional wisdoms and the current status and, as a result, constantly drive for innovation. When framed by purpose, self-directed learners and leaders can safely develop and maintain a powerful balance of continuity and innovation.

Notice that there’s no mention of specific business content; that’s because content changes rapidly in today’s world. Focusing too narrowly on job-specific knowledge and skills is usually a waste of organizational energy. Instead, succession programs that focus on developing a collective purpose and building learning skills will have a rich talent pool that will ensure the long-term success of the organization.  

About the Author

William Seidman is a recognized thought leader and expert on how to develop and sustain high-performing organizations. In particular, he is renowned for understanding the processes required to discover and use expert wisdom to create extraordinary organizational performance. William holds a doctorate from Stanford University, where he spent eight years studying management decision making. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he developed a groundbreaking technique for analyzing management decision making. The technique is the core of Strategy to Action methodology and has been recognized by KMWorld, The Innovation Center, IDC, and others.

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