OK Boomer Organization

How enterprises misfire in aligning talent to work

It was the shot heard around the world. Or rather, the putdown heard loud and clear from New Zealand. When Chloe Swarbrick uttered those words “OK, boomer” in response to an older heckler during her speech in Parliament, a global meme was born.

Was it a fair putdown? Something was warranted given the disrespect shown while she had the floor. Was it ageist? Most definitely, but then her young age clearly played into the motivations of her heckler. Did it work? Perhaps, it became meme of the year.

Someone mentioned in reply to my last newsletter that calling out executives in my last post was perhaps ageist. Here is what I said:

“…most executives of enterprises achieved professional success in the traditional setting of command and control, top-down hierarchies…”

No age is implied, but there is an implied mindset. The old-school, traditional approach to professional success is by becoming management material, playing the political game, and working the system. even if one rises to a level beyond one’s level of competence.

There is a classic management conundrum called the Peter Principle. We see this play out often in large organizations where fiefdoms form and quid pro quo alliances matter more than actually results. In smaller companies or startups, this happens less. In global enterprises, this is the cultural norm, played out famously in Dilbert comic strips.

Over a decade ago, I was a founder of a tech startup called Wingspread. It was meant to bring sense to the chaos of intelligently applying human potential in organizations. The idea was to quantitatively measure skills of employees and map their skill profiles to the tasks required in their current or future role based on the goals of the organization, group, and team.

In practice, this was a monumental challenge. Mapping the goals of an organization and decomposing that down to a task level was difficult. Getting employees to complete a skills profile (or “Wingspread”) was often impossible. But when it worked and we rolled up the data to the organization level, it showed clear gaps in goals versus skills. In other words, most of the companies we engaged had the wrong people doing the wrong work.

The Peter Principle is a direct consequence of this mismatch. Organizations promote based on the work performed in the existing role, not potential to succeed in the next role. I saw this occur often in my time as a developer where a peer would be elevated to manager and flail at a role they clearly did not love and were not equipped to handle.

Companies are a better these days at handling the transitions from individual contributor to manager. There are training sessions, mentoring, and support channels in place in most organizations. Yet, there is still a wide and deep gap in talent versus work to be done.

A talent gap always exists. It is a symptom of poor hiring practices, a poor understanding of the work required, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Organizations usually get by however despite the gap. During times of significant organizational upheaval or transition though, that gap becomes a gaping chasm that undermines any effort to change.

I began this series with the premise that organizations transitioning to a learning culture must change in six fundamental areas in order to successfully transform:

A common theme with organizations undergoing digital transformation is the challenge of acquiring new skills. The needs run the gamut of leadership and management skills for a new way of working to technical skills required to leverage more efficient and modern technologies for faster creation of digital products and solutions.

In the past five years, roles such as Agile Coach, DevOps Engineer, Cloud Architect, and Scrum Master were rare. Now they are staples in enterprises desperate to catch up to nimbler startup and cloud native competitors. They are even spending massive sums of money to recruit out of tech companies hoping to spark magic in their organizations.

Magic happens mostly because of the setup and the environment. There is very little “magic” that happens during the trick. In one of the more famous illusions, David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear on live television. He could do that because the illusion was setup ahead of time to make it appear magic was happening.

Most organizations never think about the setup. They hire lots of talented engineers and product leaders and transition experts. Then executives wonder why nothing was changed a year or more into the transformation. The answer is that the environment these skilled resources have been placed is opposed to change. The talent does not match the work.

The fundamental mistake leadership makes when embarking on a digital transformation is assuming it is about technology. It is about culture and changing the way people work. There is no safety to fail or ability to collaborate. This allows the bureaucracy to snuff out any attempts at the types of process improvements that would enable the technology to deliver better business outcomes.

Aligning talent requires addressing two sides of the talent equation. First is understanding the work to be done. Second is acquiring the right talent for the work required.

Organizations decide to transform usually due to some externality. It could be marketplace threats, shifting consumer tastes, etc. A vision statement is crafted by leadership with a press release and public fanfare. Others further down the organization then need to translate vision into real work, tasks and jobs, for work they often have no experience in. 

On occasion I receive requests from IT leaders to find them a DevOps or Cloud expert. When I ask about the maturity of the organization, it is clear that the engineering talent and processes to support development work do not exist. IT had been outsourced previously, which meant IT managers were more skilled project managers and budget planners than technologists. 

The immaturity of the IT organization impacts the ability to get the right talent. Because leadership are not technologists, it makes convincing talent developers and architects to come on board even more challenging.

Changing this perception requires more than just putting a digitally savvy businessperson into a Chief Digital Officer role. It requires hiring IT leaders that are actual technologists that know how to best build engineering capability from scratch, recruit other developers, remove process roadblocks, and instill a real engineering culture.

The equation for digital transformation success rests on having an engineering seat at the table with the business. With authority and ownership granted, engineering leaders can mold what the work looks like and acquire the right talent to map to the work needed.

How digitally savvy is your organization when it comes to culture, talent, and process? What was the process to become a more engineering-centric culture?

Episode #7 — Shaun Norris of Pivotal on Four Key Development Metrics
We welcomed Shaun Norris of Pivotal to the show a few weeks back for his insights on the four metrics of migrating from legacy to cloud infrastructure.

New Heretechs podcast episodes are coming in January! In the meantime, check out past episodes by finding them on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts and please give us a like and subscribe 😁

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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