Systemic Talent Management views talent management, performance management and succession planning as complex, adaptive systems — unlike traditional HR approaches, which broadly treat these activities as if they were simple, linear systems. An interesting perspective on these contrasting approaches comes from Eric Abrahamson, professor of management at Columbia Business School, and David Freeman who explore the conflict between the human need to create order and the fact that most people and most systems work more effectively when there is a moderate amount of messiness that upsets the orderliness.

In their book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (2006, Little, Brown, New York) they draw on a wide range of science, including Einstein’s theory of Brownian motion and the concept of stochastic resonance, research and example to argue that mess is an essential part of a fully functioning organisation, function or individual. Among their observations:

  • There are often significant cost savings to be had by tolerating a certain level of messiness and disorder… moderately disorganized people, institutions and systems frequently turn out to be more effective, more resilient, more creative and in general more effective than highly organized ones (p5)
  • Chaos and complexity theory is about finding hidden order… that’s not the same as lack of order (p22)
  • People, who said they keep a “very neat” desk spend an average of 36% moretime looking for things at work than people, who said they keep a “fairly messy” desk … a messy desk tends to reflect the way you think and work (p31)
  • Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, salary and experience (p33)
  • New York professor Bill Starbuck found that “companies that did a lot of strategic planning performed, on average, no better than companies that did less”
  • Stochastic resonance says that adding some sort of randomness to system can make it more effective – i.e. that disorder can sometimes improve things (p71)
  • Messiness conveys six benefits: flexibility, completeness, resonance, invention, efficiency and robustness (p78)
  • Dutch economics professor Peter Nijkamp describes path dependency – a tendency by companies as they grow to try to impose increasing order. The problem with all these systems, policies and structures is that they reduce the organization’s ability to respond to external change (p165)

Abrahamson and Freeman suggest that organizational and individual effectiveness lie in achieving the optimal balance between messiness and order. They recommend (p230) “Try being a little messier in some way and see if there is an improvement. If there is, try a little more. Keep going until you get the sense that somewhere along the line things got worse, at which point you might want to try being a bit neater.”

Putting this into the context of HR and talent management, it’s not hard to find examples where the desire to predict and control talent management borders on the obsessive. Some simple practical steps that might counteract this and stimulate creative messiness might include:

  • Include some randomness in how you select candidates in job or promotion interviews
  • At least once every year, randomly select policies and explore what would happen, if you threw them out or made them more flexible. (For example, according to Abrahamson and Freeman, neat desk policies cost companies vast sums in wasted time and effort!)
  • Whenever the suggestion comes up that something needs to be better controlled, consider: What’s the minimum level of control that would meet our needs, while preserving as much flexibility as possible?
  • Create opportunities for new ideas and perspectives to gain traction, by including an element of randomness in meetings. For example, you can make item one on the agenda “What’s interesting?” or “What assumptions can we challenge?” Or invite an observer from outside the team, who may ask naïve questions.
  • If any aspect of talent management does seem to be ordered and under control, take the perspective that it is probably not delivering what you think it is. (For example, if everyone in your talent pool gets promoted, is it really the result of superb selection or an unhealthy reduction in diversity?)

The aim is not to create mess or disorder for it’s own sake, but to counteract excessive order that prevents the natural expression and development of talent and restricts who has access to opportunity. When Galileo was persecuted by the Church and the Establishment for pointing out that they Earth went round the Sun, rather than vice versa, it was because he questioned the orderliness of the cosmos (which we now know to be a very messy place indeed!) and hence, by inference, the orderliness of Society.


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