Talent Driven Management

Everybody loves process. Adopting a process is a relatively easy answer in a world of uncertainty. Just execute the process and everything will be okay — you’ll get good results. Whether it’s agile product development, Kanban, Six Sigma or whatever, process holds the promise that we can learn it, adapt it and spin it into gold, regardless of the quality of our organization’s people, product or business. This is why we cling to process-based solutions so tightly, and why there’s a whole industry of process consultants to fleece, I mean, teach clients.

The process tail is wagging the organizational dog.

Now don’t get me wrong, process has a place. Process can be great at organizing and coordinating people, providing answers about what to do next, and generally producing results. However my concern is about when process is elevated above the recognition of the talents and weaknesses of individuals, and people are expected to just plug into processes like interchangeable cogs.

I imagine this is a hold over from our industrial past, this management fixation with standardized processes within an organization. However, in the realm of knowledge work (which I know primarily from my industry, software development) I’ve come to recognize a different model that more closely resembles the nature of their work: the wrangling of talent, as performed by the movie, television, and music industries.

Talent > Process

It’s simple. Great talent will produce great results even if saddled with a mediocre process, but mediocre talent will never produce great results no matter how amazing their process might be. Why then do we obsess over process? Because it’s something that management can control directly. Attracting great talent is more of an art, understanding the psychology of appealing to top performers. Many organizations probably feel that’s beyond them.

However, in Hollywood, they know better. When a movie is put together, it goes through a casting process wherein actors appropriate to roles are sourced. Perhaps it is decided the movie needs a star. Sometimes actors come with ideas that make a role better, and so the role changes.

In short, although there is much room for process, it is understood that the enterprise is a creative action, and that the essence of building a team is to find artists who can work together to deliver the best version of that creative action.

Casting: Finding Talent

To make Talent Driven Management work, you need to find talent. Smart, effective, people who can breath life into the roles you’ve defined.

An issue here can be effectively screening candidates. One needs to really understand how well the capabilities and character of the talent fulfills the need of the role. Unfortunately, as humans it’s incredibly easy for us to conflate someone’s capabilities and character with preconceptions about their identity (even if that conflation is unconscious).

Most people don’t deal with a lack of information very well, and when you’re looking at a stack of resumes a lack of information is what you have. We tend to fill in the blanks based on whatever is available, and frequently that’s based on gender, race, age, ethnicity and so forth.

To combat this, blind screening can be really helpful, which is what Opus AI is all about. This lets you look at capabilities and character without being distracted or biased by demographics.

What To Look For In Talent
The key idea is that you’re casting for a specific role. That role exists along a number of different dimensions, and you need to have a sense of how they will affect individual performance, as well as how that person will work within the team. Some factors to look for:

  • Skills and Knowledge: The part that is usually evaluated — do they have the capability to do the job?
  • Soft Skills: Things like communication skills, work ethic, focus and so forth. A lot of being able to work on a team comes down to soft skills.
  • Learning Style: Different people learn in different ways, and that affects how they’ll function on your team. Do they prefer to experiment? To learn from documentation? From instruction?
  • Communication Style: Are they forthright? Blunt perhaps? Do they like to paint a rich picture, or drive plainly to their point? Beyond the soft skill capability of communication, a person’s communication style is also critical with how they integrate with the team.
  • Working Style: Some people like to plunge ahead. Some are cautious and measured. Some work in bursts of productivity; some are steady and constant.

When you put all of these factors together and compare the person with the other people on the team, do they make sense as a cohesive unit? Will people work well together because their attributes match, or will it unbalance the team? This is more art than science. You’ll need to build some experience with teams to understand the dynamics between individuals and how they affect overall team performance.

You wouldn’t audition an actor without having them act, or audition a musician without having them perform music. You need to experience them doing their craft.

Why should any other knowledge work differ? Basically, you can’t really tell if someone can do their job without having them do their job. Hence, the audition.

Find a reasonable length of time — a week preferably, but at least a day. Have the candidate come in and work (and get paid) as a try-out. They are auditioning for their role. Get a sense of how they would inhabit it.

Directing: Enabling Talent

Actors and musicians don’t work in a vacuum, and neither do knowledge workers. The best work happens when it is someone’s job to enable talent to do their jobs. In film and television this is the director’s role, so let’s use that terminology.

A director’s job is to elicit the best performances out of the talent. This usually doesn’t mean dictating the specific methods they must use to reach their goals, but rather finding a common ground with the talent to get the best performance from them.

The main idea here is that you will see a lot of variance, depending on the styles of the director and the talent. Process and style will be tools they use to produce results, and may vary from one group to the next. Chemistry between directors and talent matters a lot.

As an example, a director in a software development team is likely a senior developer. But instead of loading them up with their own deliverables, their job is to move around and enable the other developers, through code reviews, architectural work, pair programming, handling escalations and so forth. If this person is loaded up (or loads themselves up) with their own deliverables, then their ability to enable others will be compromised.

Producing: Managing the Business of the Work

All this touchy-feely bring-out-the-best-in-talent stuff is fine, but someone really does have to watch the bottom line, and that’s where the producer comes in. The producer is the voice of the budget, the schedule, and of delivering things that solve the business problems of the organization.

This seemingly could put the producer at odds with the director, but really they should act as partners with a common goal.

Producing definitely tracks onto the concept of project management, and may also connect to the world of product management. I actually like the idea of unifying those roles, because it means that there is one person who really has to internalize the entire time-money-quality triangle, and make good decisions while looking at the entire picture.

The Boss: Executive Producer

Look up the chain of command of a movie production and you’ll find the executive producer. This is the studio. The people paying for this.

Any project or work group should have one person who is ultimately in charge of the whole thing and is responsible for its smooth operation. On a day-to-day basis, the producer and the director should work as equals and get things done without needing additional assistance. However, if management support, correction, or a tie breaker is required, it is the EP’s job to provide it.

Additionally, the EP is the one person ultimately in charge of the team. If something goes wrong with the team, it is the EP’s responsibility to fix it. That means the EP should have visibility into the team via one-on-ones with both the producer and director, and be able to coach and correct them as necessary.

Star Power

Not all talent is created equal.

Sometimes an individual stands out, lifting the entire team to another level. In entertainment, these individuals are stars. The marketability of a project is often based upon them.

In other knowledge work, star power often is related to productivity. Stars can do work no one else on the team is capable of doing, or they can do it at a level of quality above everyone else. For example, in software development, a star might be a genuine 10x developer.

Stars tend to demand special treatment. In one sense they are right to demand rewards beyond what other talent receives, because greater rewards are in proportion to what they bring to the table. However, this can run contrary to the values of egalitarianism in the workplace.

So in Talent Driven Management, one needs to ask if stars have a place on the team. If so they may to need special treatment if you want them to stick around. Or, you could do the cast of unknowns approach, and operate without stars. In some ways that’s easier to manage, although you may not enjoy the high highs that star power brings.

So Do We Have To Suffer Jerks?
You will, at times, hear stories of stars that are difficult to work with. Sometimes that is just a bad match between the star and the other people on the team. Sometimes the star is just a a jerk.

There’s no magic right answer here. You will need to decide if a difficult (or jerky) star is worth the pain. Are they too much of a prima donna, to demanding, to unsocialized to work with you? Or is it worth a little discomfort to produce stellar results? You’ll have to decide.

Stars are not inherently good team members, especially if they are difficult.

Wait, What About Process Then?

So with all this focus on talent, do we ditch process entirely?

No, of course not. Process still has a place in management, even when it’s Talent Driven.

However, it should be clear that process is a tool. It is subordinate to the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of the individuals on the project team. It should not be a standard to which everyone is forced to adhere, whether it makes sense for those individuals or not.

In other words, process should deliver something when it is adopted. If Kanban, or Scrum, or a specific individual practice is useful to a team as understood by that team’s director, producer or EP, then great, adopt it. If it doesn’t work then dump it. If that team winds up working differently than another team within the organization, that’s fine. Talent first, process second.

While I think process solutions to management have been oversold, I’m not anti-process. I just think that finding, enabling and managing great talent matters more, and process should serve that end, not be an end unto itself.