Reframe and re-aim during times of uncertainty.
Remember when 2020 and the new decade that came with it held so much promise? The US economy was stronger than recent years across most metrics. In addition, US unemployment numbers were so low that the most competitive segments of many businesses were vying for the most qualified talent available. Then, suddenly, a virus created a tidal wave of reactions that sent a chill down our collective spines around the world.
Few industries have remained untouched, and even fewer sectors have seen growth during the downturn. So, how does a business recover with both collective wisdom and competitive advantage during such a volatile economy? Each company will have a unique recovery scenario, and business leaders need to consider several competing and complementary variables as they navigate that recovery. Here are five diverse agenda topics that may be on their short list:
- Do we furlough or lay off employees during a drop in business?
- How do we manage cash flow through a downturn and recovery?
- What are the secondary and tertiary effects of a downturn on client spending patterns, sales projection pipelines, etc.?
- How does the social unrest with public protests affect our employees and company culture during this time?
- How does the business rethink remote work policies and practices, outsourcing, or contract-to-permanent hiring within new or existing business areas that are strategically important to growth?
As you consider those topics, think about the differences between a passive and a proactive talent development leader approach. The first two agenda topics represent items that a passive TD leader may wait to see happen, while the latter three are items that a proactive TD leader will use to engage and partner with organizational leaders, helping them realize the strategic impact that TD work can have on the business during times of uncertainty.
So, are you a TD leader who waits for the business to announce plans to lay off a certain percentage of the workforce, or are you aware and positioned as part of the strategic response team? Of course, it's important to point out that solely recognizing ways to be more strategic in partnering with the business does not arm you with the ability or confidence to initiate the conversation. In fact, it may be a career-limiting move to initiate the dialogue if it is out of character for your relationship with these leaders. To prepare for and approach this conversation, use the guiding principles within the TARGET model:
- Tear down preconceptions.
- Assemble a comprehensive set of ideas (divergent thinking).
- Reflect and refine theories.
- Gather specific resources (convergent thinking).
- Engage solutions.
- Test new findings.
My firm recommends the model to clients experiencing significant change to help them stay innovative, open, and responsive to new work or life experiences. Using it will help you consider specific actions the TD function can take to navigate the high-change, limited-resource environments in which many organizations currently find themselves.
Tear down preconceptions
Be quick to admit when you are in uncharted territory. For example, until last year, few employees had been directly affected by a pandemic in their adult life. Recognize that previous business-as-usual processes and practices may not work moving forward.
There are several ways to approach this unusual first step, and it will certainly vary based on the particular initiative and the unique complexities within your organization. As you read through the examples below, circle the ones you may choose to discuss related to challenges within the TD team, and add your own parallel items that come to mind.
First, question the way the TD function or your company has always done things in the situation of focus. Take these examples that many businesses have been dealing with during the past year:
- Working from the office versus working remotely
- What responsive, differentiated customer service looks like in this environment
- How employee care may need to be more responsive to changing medical and social situations
- Exploring previously new or untapped revenue streams
- Prioritizing decisions in more strategically responsive ways given the current reality
- How training design and delivery must shift in this pandemic-recovery economy
Next, document some of the assumptions you have made about the way the business runs day to day. You will use that information later as a starting point to brainstorm alternate ways to achieve the same goal or shift perceived constraints. Consider these possible prompts:
- Name three reasons you should rethink the TD team's project charter or training intake process.
- List four reasons your current training delivery methods don't work well in this environment.
- Assume that available TD resources are cut by 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent. What priorities could others accomplish? What functions could the TD department cut back on or let go of entirely? What would become the TD team's number 1 priority and why?
- What sequence of events has the TD team required in its business processes that you could rethink or streamline?
Applying the TARGET Model
Example: Exploring the Transition to a Remote Workforce
Tear down preconceptions
- What assumptions (positive or negative) has our company made about remote work and remote workers?
- Is there research that would contradict some of those assumptions?
- Are there competitors that have a remote workforce (or that tried it and failed)?
Assemble a comprehensive set of ideas (divergent thinking)
- What would our company do if all the workspaces were closed and it had to be 100 percent remote?
- What benefits could we brainstorm for the organization, employees, and customers?
- How would current work start, stop, or change? What new opportunities could we create?
Reflect and refine theories
- If this were to fail, what would be the reasons? How do we address those before we start?
- How many ways could our company leverage a remote workforce to its advantage?
- How would the company prepare people for this change? What would transition look like?
Gather specific resources (convergent thinking)
- If our organization were to make this transition, what new or different resources would be best?
- How could we start working in this new direction? What is the best next step and milestones?
- What companies do we know that have done this well (or failed)? What lessons can we learn from them?
- What should our company stop, start, and continue as part of implementation?
- Who can lead this effort? What will that person need to be able to implement quickly?
- What risk management, change management, and project management plans must be in place?
Test new findings
- How will the company know if it is successful? What does good versus great look like?
- What mechanisms do we need in place to measure effectiveness?
- What modifications could we try that may work better? How will we capture new ideas?
Assemble a comprehensive set of ideas
While this is not likely a time to tear down long-held company policies to rebuild from the ground up, there may also be no better time to invite specific employees (inside the department or across the company) to spend 30 minutes exploring radical what-if scenarios. That will naturally lead into this divergent thinking activity. Brainstorm as many different ideas as possible, and suspend judgment until later phases in the process.
Consider the training intake process, for example. If the TD team were to re-create it, how many different people, places, and sources can you picture a new request originating from? Name every single need-to-know and nice-to-know piece of information a submitter could possibly be made aware of before submitting a new request. Next, create a mind map of where submitters currently have gaps in knowledge and the possible reasons (that can help you recognize false assumptions the process makes).
As another example, let's say the TD function's number 1 priority (due to resources being cut) becomes onboarding new salespeople in half the time. For that scenario:
- Name every possible way you can think of for streamlining the onboarding experience.
- Compile a short list of the most qualified and well-respected employees whom the TD team could leverage and introduce to new hires as a mentor or coach without any added training cost. Also consider how to incentivize the selected employees to support the new hires without hurting their own sales metrics.
- Brainstorm ways to build a discussion board or messaging site that could enable new hires to document and share with their peer group insights they continue to have, even after training has officially ended.
Reflect and refine theories
Take some time for deeper thinking, turning the kaleidoscope to see what different solutions come into focus, and working to polish and refine theories that surface for rapid prototyping or piloting.
Using some of the self-imposed constraints above, what new approaches is the TD team open to exploring further? What does it need to think more deeply about before deciding on a course of action? How will you go about making time for that exploration?
Next, invite others to share their perceptions or reflections on current gaps and future targets. In addition to reaching out to the people you typically seek feedback from, consider who else may have an opinion or perspective that could be valuable. Think across organizational levels, roles, and internal and external perspectives. Reach out for feedback in ways that you never have before, and consider how that could make a difference in the feedback you receive, the speed, or the overall response rate.
Other questions to ask include:
- Are there ways you could dream big and turn the current challenges into an even bigger, differentiated opportunity? What ideas come to mind?
- How can you shorten the list of most likely solutions? What factors drive the plausibility of those solutions, and how could that be different for functional teams or departments sitting in other parts of the company?
- What are the next steps to move forward, and what are any contingencies?
Notice that some of the aforementioned items have elements that still help tear down preconceptions. That cyclical way of remaining open to questioning assumptions is by design. Be prepared to fail, and then be ready to improvise an alternate solution. Because you've laid a strong foundation, you don't have to fear going back a few steps. It will enable you to quickly leverage, rethink, adapt, and adjust to the new environment. It's that type of observant, improvisational problem solving that led to breakout inventions like Velcro and the Post-it Note.
Gather specific resources
While the step of assembling a comprehensive set of ideas is about divergent thinking, this next step leverages convergent thinking. For each of the most viable ideas that have surfaced, look now at how to make them happen. Here you may focus on:
- Specialization—Who from the TD team or elsewhere in the organization would be the best at this activity? Is there a new tool you'll need to acquire?
- Synthesis—What shared team resources would make the dream team for this initiative?
- Speed—Who could work on this quickly to create a prototype or execute within the limited time available?
Other important factors will surface as you gain momentum and build excitement for specific solutions that have never been considered before. That may become the new secret formula, but it may also reveal a complete flop (New Coke, anyone?). You won't know which you have until you implement the new ideas. And this step ensures you will give it your best shot.
Now that you have thought deeply, reflecting and refining the theories, it's time to engage the solutions. Just like the result of tearing down preconceptions can take on many different looks based on whether you are rethinking a team process, a client segment, or an entire business culture, the practice of engaging solutions also can take on many different forms depending upon the initiative size, complexity, cost, and potential impact to the organization.
Some possible engagements may include:
- Implementing a new process
- Gathering feedback from a focus group
- Monitoring a sample group versus control group
- Piloting a new course
- Initiating a new market test
- Trying out a new tool
- Working with a new consulting group
- Creating a new employee resource group
- Eliminating a redundant work segment
Test new findings
Draft ideas for evaluation while engaging the solutions, but also be ready to adapt the evaluation plan as you go. Clearly defining success for each unique solution will require unique measurements, so decide collectively what good looks like and which metrics will work best for the implementation. Working on this as a team will help all members avoid emotional attachment to solutions they have helped create or pilot, and it reinforces the iterative nature of the process. Set expectations for the team to move on to test subsequent iterations quickly.
The secret is having a willingness to face adversity with resilience, try something new, and keep trying different approaches and perspectives until you realize a better answer. The solution should be not only better for you as a TD leader but also for your company and its customers. When initiating and testing a new solution, think about the minimum necessary, the maximum potential, failing forward, and scalability.
Create an action plan
TARGET provides a formula to reflect, refocus, restructure, and relaunch in the middle of these times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Instead of panic, fight, or flight, the model encourages teams to use divergent and convergent thinking to keep the organization breathing in new possibilities and exhaling tired toxins. Such methods enable proactive leaders to choreograph a collective inhale and exhale when they sense everyone is holding their breath.
So, what will you do with this information? Consider putting together a brief personal action plan by answering the following questions:
- Where do you see the greatest opportunity within your business for the TARGET model to help mitigate company risks through troubling times?
- With whom could you partner or share this information—who would understand and dare to brainstorm an initial plan of action with you and help you prepare before approaching the leadership team?
- How can you approach leadership so they perceive you as part of the solution rather than just accentuating the problem?
- What roles will you and each of your strategic partners play?
- What timeframe should you give yourself to put together initial thoughts?
- How are the solutions you are presenting feasible in light of the likely significant reduction in available budget or other constraints your company is now facing?
- Who are your allies? To whom could you turn when you get stuck on this journey?
- Is there anyone with whom you need to align before you start?
- How will you determine when it's time to admit failure and quickly rethink, allowing you to try another approach?
- What are your next steps to get started?
Collaborate for Best Results
For some people, the first two activities—tearing down preconceptions and assembling a comprehensive set of ideas—may be unsettling. Several factors can trigger that feeling, including personality, role within the company, or length of tenure.
Be certain to provide context to the individuals you've invited to participate as well as permission to disrupt business-as-usual processes before beginning. Set specific time constraints, and consider working with an outside facilitator to minimize the trauma to participants. Other people in the organization likely will embrace the process and be ready to change everything (for the sake of change itself). The goal is to honor the rich diversity that exists within your organization. Invite every voice to share throughout the process. The result will be a stronger, more cohesive team and new, innovative thoughts that will fuel future strategic efforts.