Talent Management: It’s a three-door problem

The magazine ‘Parade’ had a column ‘Ask Marilyn’ by the person with the highest recorded IQ (according to the Guinness Book of Records), Marilyn vos Savant. In 1990 Craig Whitaker of Columbia wrote in with a question that is known as the ‘Monty Hall’ problem.

doors  on wallsThe Monty Hall problem is as follows: Supposing you are on a TV game show and the programme host shows you three closed doors, behind two of which are goats, and the remaining door has a car hidden behind it. Your goal is obviously to win the car and you are then invited to choose a door. Having chosen a door, the show’s host then opens one of the remaining two doors, revealing a goat. Without knowing what is behind your door, you are then asked this question: “Do you want to stick with your choice or change (to the remaining door)?” Stick or change: that is the option you are presented with in your quest to win the car.

At this point the vast majority of people choose to stick believing that it makes little difference, as after all, there is now a 50:50 chance of winning the car.

What would you do and why at this point?

In response, Marilyn said that by changing and choosing the alternative door you had a two-thirds chance of winning the car. 92% of letters written after the show strongly disagreed with her logic including several written by prominent mathematicians and scientists. Marilyn was roundly condemned for her ‘poor mathematics’ and some even accused her of corrupting the next generation with her poor mathematics and logic. Yet, they were all wrong, and she proved it.

What most lost sight of was that this wasn’t a ‘two-door’ problem but rather a ‘three-door’ problem. An easy way to better understand the Monty Hall problem is to imagine 1000 doors rather than just the three. This exaggerates the odds when it comes to sticking or changing and as such better illustrates that this was never a 50:50 situation. In doing the mathematics in making the choice whether to stick or switch has to factor in that the starting point was a three-door context.

It is important to understand your starting point. When it comes to what we refer to as a ‘talent problem’ (the attraction and retention of talent) I think we are treating a ‘three-door’ problem as a ‘two-door’ problem with the result we are focusing in the wrong area. We don’t have a ‘talent problem’; we have a leadership problem.

The real issue is not what to do to keep our talent but rather how best to address leaders in order to shift mindsets and change behavior that will directly impact on the ‘talent challenge’. The reality is that the ‘playing fields’ (our institutions) have been shaped by the leaders (Baby Boomers). The rules in play are the rules and conditions that make sense to the Boomer mindset and worldview. Of course this is a rather generalized and simplistic overview but it is hard to get away from the evidence that that points to the majority of current institutional rules having largely been determined by the Boomers in charge. However, things have changed. There is a new ‘normal’ that has emerged. A world in which technology has disrupted everything from managing information to how we connect; a world where the epicenter is rapidly shifting Eastwards; a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; a world where subtle (and not so subtle) demographics shifts are rearranging the stage and shifting critical mass.

All this forms the broad context in which a new generation is entering the workplace and they are a generation that have grown-up in this context – it is their ‘normal’. They have grown up in a fundamentally different world; they are arriving in the workplace expecting it to reflect something of their reality. The fact that it often does not is where the pain is located and the ‘talent challenge’ rooted. The talent problem is the intersection between institutions struggling to keep pace with shifting realities, and the ‘products’ of that shifting reality. It can be a messy collision and something has to give.

The responsibility to change that collision point, to reshape that busy intersection, sits with leadership. Leaders shape organizational culture and it is leaders who have the ability to open conversations, change norms, establish new rituals and institute alternative rules that govern the ‘playground’. For any ‘talent management’ programme to succeed it will require a leadership engagement and recognition that it is not merely about ‘us’ (Boomers) changing ‘them’ – but equally about ‘us’ being changed by ‘them’. It is a two-way street in which learning and value flows in both directions. Creating this two-way street is entirely dependent on leadership. Put simply, we must stop trying to ‘fit them into us’ and rather look to understand how it is we need to change; what needs to be different. When last did you witness senior leaders attend their talent management programme in any capacity other than to present, welcome or handout some kind of certificate? Any smart leader will recognize what an important and valuable pool their talent management programme is for their own learning and the opportunity it presents to see the organization afresh.

Another way we have inadvertently made talent management a two-door problem is the failure to realize that the moment we define ‘talent’ – by inference, we define ‘non-talent’. What do we now do with the majority who fall into the default non-talent category?  Linked to this is also the muddle that usually accompanies the definition of ‘talent’. Exactly what do we mean by the term? Can a 50 year-old person be on such a programme? Is talent something one has or can it be developed? How is it measured before, during and after the talent process? Of course there are answers for such questions but most of the answers that I have come across or been given are complex, often nonsensical and full of corporate HR speak that does little to convey meaning and infuse purpose. It is what we have made it and that has been driven by a relentless ‘business-school’ type approach that is impressive ‘on paper’ but more often than not fails to translate into anything substantial or meaningful. The wheels are spinning but there seems to be no traction. Sound like I might be describing your programme?

If we want the car and not the goat we need to change what we are doing. We will need to step-back, understand the wider dimension to the problem and take a chance. It is is not about ‘fixing them’ but one more about, ‘changing ourselves’. It is a problem that will not go away and one that will not be resolved by merely closing our eyes and hoping for the best. A CEO once challenged me with a valid, “so what exactly should we be doing?” which I responded to by asking, “why are you asking me? – ask them (talent)”.  “What should we be doing?” is a good question to start the conversation with your ‘talent’ and it doesn’t mean that you become a hostage to their response. There will be unrealistic expectations and responses that will need to be challenged but all of this is stimulated by conversation. Why not try out some of the suggestions that you may hear? Why not change some of the way ‘things are done around here’ for in doing so, who is to say that you might not discover a ‘better way’? Dator’s ‘second law of futures’ states that, any idea about the future that doesn’t appear ridiculous, is not worth considering. You will certainly hear a few of those (ridiculous ideas) but it still might be worth trying them out.

I was working with a leading fashion brand that had an internal policy that severely restricted Internet access amongst their staff. They had a young staff team – as one would expect in such an industry. On being informally quizzed, the staff readily admitted that they had simply created work-around schemes that by-passed the company’s policy. Confronted with this reality, the ‘ridiculous idea’ we posed to the Executive was to simply do away with their restrictive policy and see what happens. They took the chance – in the Monty Hall context, they switched doors, and the results amazed them. On their measures they found that productivity went up; staff satisfaction went up; employee engagement increased. The feared abuse of the freedom (and hence the justification for the policy in the first place) never materialized and everybody was happy.

When it comes to the ‘talent problem’, sometimes you simply have to switch doors! The decision to make this switch is always a leadership decision.

There can be no ‘how to’s’ for this topic – or at least if there are some, they should be something you discover through your own experimentation and process. Each context is different and understanding the context is paramount in making significant progress in the attraction and retention of talent. Our leadership programmes need to be sure that they are orientated around the core principle of preparing leaders – both current and future, for leading in an ever changing and disruptive world. Few leadership programmes that I am part of fully understand this agenda and what it takes to truly prepare and equip leaders for this daunting but inescapable challenge. It is a sad reality given the investment of effort, expense and time such initiatives consume. The measures are wrong and the outcomes blurred. It is not a situation that is sustainable and there are cracks, deep cracks that are surfacing in many of the senior leadership programmes and initiatives.

So, if you were to take anything from these words, then my wish would be for you to leave this article with better questions and a desire to rethink what it is you are doing when it comes to talent. Go and ask some questions; take some time to sit-in, listen, read, look and explore. Demand of others an authentic, fresh, open and experiential response to what is a challenging issue – just how do we engage the next generation both inside and outside of our business?

It is not a talent problem – it is a leadership challenge. Redefining it thus, changes everything!

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One thought on “Talent Management: It’s a three-door problem”

  1. Craig Stuart says:

    This is a very true observation and together with the 3 door example highlights talent management as a leadership situation. Very enlightening, thank you.

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