When their “talents” prevent firms from innovating

This is unfortunately a common experience: during an executive seminar on innovation I ran for a large group, we outlined an innovation strategy based in particular on the development of intrapreneurship. We designed programs that would allow employees to develop their ideas, and defined appropriate structures and devices to make it work. Then finally came the crucial moment, when one of the participants asked the fateful question: “But do we have the people to do this?” Everyone looked appalled. The HR manager – fortunately she was present – answered, embarrassed, “Well actually, no we don’t.” Game over.

Years of HR policy devoted to the recruitment and development of “talents” had led the company to a dead end. For what is meant by “talent” in these big companies? Most of the time, talents are good students; irreproachable managers, from the best schools, the success of whom, especially in France, rests on their ability to learn to answer questions put to them. These questions admit only one answer, and they had to find it. Year after year, they learned to find it, and to do so especially against of other students who were also looking for it. Their success depended on the failure of others. They learned not to take risks, not to fail, to properly calculate their shot, and choose their hobbies based on the social relations it would allow them to build. A lifetime dedicated to minimizing their risk. Why does a good student will work in a blue chip company? For the thrill it gives? To change the world? Of course not. A good student works there because the company offers a rent: a good salary, social consideration, an absence of risk, and some power until it is time to retire. And of course it works: by filtering out the outsiders, the marginalized and those who do not fit, the firm gains reliability and predictability, a guarantee of its performance. Good students stay among themselves, they understand each other, the company refines its model and everything works better. At least as long as the environment does not change discontinuously.

And then one day comes a disruption. The digital revolution, big data, “uberization”, low cost, whatever. The barbarians are at our gates! When the north wind comes, the company is very lacking. Because all of a sudden, Boom! Crack! Innovators are wanted! People who go out of the box! “Innovate!” was the message that the CEO of a large company told at a meeting of stunned employees. Oh and also, you need to work in teams, of course! Thus going against 25 years of (de) formation by the education system. Frogs must be transformed into cows. Miraculously…

But there is no miracle in management. Only strategic choices. And nothing is more strategic than deciding whom one recruits, whom is kept and whom is promoted. Years spent nurturing “talent”, i.e. people fully adapted to the past, perfectly suited to fight in the last war and who have never taken the slightest risk in their lives, come due the day specifically we need people willing to take risks. Those passed through the filter, despite the vigilance of HR, are long gone, horrified. And with its “talents” who, in the new world, are not talents at all, the firm must address the disruptions it faces, a bit like trying to cross the Atlantic with a camel, so to speak.

“There is no wealth but men,” wrote Jean Bodin, but still need to know what men of the company needs. The recruitment of employees who conform to the current business model is a necessity, but the development of diversity is essential if the company wants to evolve and change. The creation of this diversity, not filtering the outcasts, should be the strategic role of HR function if its manager does not want one day to be faced with colleagues and admit that, no, the implementation of a much needed innovation strategy is not possible for lack of the necessary people.

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