by Mark Settle

5-stage self-help program for confronting talent debt within your organization

Sep 04, 2019
IT LeadershipIT Skills

IT leaders bemoan the technical debt afflicting their core systems but rarely confront the talent debt afflicting their workforce. This self-help program enables leaders to accelerate the transition from denial to action in dealing with their talent debt issues.

mistake erase pencil oops problem test by bleshutterb getty
Credit: BleShutterb / Getty

It’s budgeting season again. Depending upon the timing of your fiscal year, you’re likely fighting the opening skirmishes or the final battle in the annual crusade to increase IT spending within your company. In many if not most instances you’re appealing for funds to rectify some portion of the technical debt afflicting your core systems. You’ve made a compelling case for investing in new hardware, upgrading or refactoring existing applications or replacing aging applications altogether. But have you also come to terms with the talent debt that is undermining the performance of your organization?

Technical talent debt exists within every IT organization. IT teams are constantly seeking ways of leveraging new technologies to expand the efficiency and effectiveness of their company’s business operations. By definition, they never have the perfect skill mix to support the technologies they currently possess and those they hope to acquire in the future. Technical talent debt will never go away within IT although it may vary in its extent and criticality over time.

Organizations possess a wide variety of talents that extend far beyond their technical expertise. Organizational talent is more than simply the collective skills, knowledge and experience of its members. It includes personal aptitudes, attitudes and abilities. It encompasses a willingness to learn; the ability to work collaboratively with others; the willingness to share; the ability to challenge; an aptitude for assessing risk and embracing change; a sense of personal dedication and accountability; an innate curiosity about how the business works; and much more. Talent on a professional sports team is more than simply performing at your assigned position. It’s making others around you better as well. In sports and business, we call that teamwork.

Whether we like to admit it or not, IT organizations and their leaders spend far more time trying to remedy the technical debt embedded in their systems than the talent debt embedded in their workforce. Why is that the case? 

First and foremost, most IT leaders started their careers as technical contributors and are far more comfortable managing technical issues than people issues. Secondly, requiring existing team members to develop new skills, assume new roles and change their work behaviors is hard work. Most people resist change either overtly or covertly and leaders are frequently reluctant to lead the charge against organizational inertia. Finally, structural issues in an organization’s talent pool can be masked by a ‘Superhero culture’ in which a handful of individuals are able to provide the critical expertise needed to complete a project or forestall a disaster. If every demand can be met and every crisis resolved, then there can’t really be skill or capability issues within the IT team, right?

What does it take for IT leaders to stop paying lip service to talent debt issues and start acting upon them?  Perhaps the work of famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross can be used to develop a framework for thinking about the ways in which IT management teams confront the talent debt within their organizations.

Kubler-Ross chronicled the emotions that humans experience in coming to terms with severe illness in her widely acclaimed book On Death and Dying. While in no way meaning to diminish the significance of her observations regarding the ways in which individuals cope with personal tragedy, the five stages of emotional response outlined in her book provide a useful framework for characterizing the response of IT leaders to chronic talent debt issues. These stages are as follows.

1. Denial

Organizations in denial believe that their existing talent pool is sufficient to address their near-term needs. They may acknowledge gaps in skills, breakdowns in teamwork or the presence of underperforming team members but conclude that none of these issues is materially impacting the effectiveness of their team. Dysfunctional families display similar characteristics. They tolerate conflict and misconduct, openly neglect selected family members and fail to hold one another accountable on such a consistent basis that they tend to treat such aberrant behaviors as perfectly normal and acceptable.

2. Anger

After a prolonged period of denial, organizations are forced to acknowledge lapses in performance due to a lack of talent and teamwork, usually through the failure of a major business initiative or a critical business system. Business executives ask, “how could this happen?” and “who is to blame?”. IT leaders and team members ask themselves the same questions. After years of denial this is the stage in which teams and their leaders feel victimized by circumstances, they personally tolerated and prolonged.

3. Bargaining

Organizations initiate a series of superficial, halfhearted initiatives at the bargaining stage of the process to camouflage their deficiencies. These initiatives might include such things as outsourcing selected services, hiring contractors possessing much-needed skills, employing management consultants to re-engineer internal processes, etc. None of these initiatives, pursued individually or collectively, can fully address skill gaps, performance deficiencies and teamwork lapses within the existing workforce.

4. Depression

At this stage it has become clear that the piecemeal solutions launched during the Bargaining stage are not addressing the systemic talent issues within the organization. As the sheer scope and magnitude of the changes required to restructure, reskill and restaff the organization become apparent, managers and their teams may feel overwhelmed and become demoralized. A classic response is “they’re going to have to find someone else to come in here and run this place”.

5. Acceptance and Action

At the end of the journey Action is not only possible but is probably inevitable. The only question is whether Action will be initiated by the existing leadership team or a new regime of managerial and technical leaders. The velocity of organizational transformations accomplished by new leaders can be remarkable. IT organizations routinely establish institutional phobias that allow them to sidestep their performance issues. “We’ll never use SaaS applications within this company because we can’t guarantee the security of our data in the cloud.” “We can operate our data centers more cost effectively than Amazon or Microsoft.” “Our customers would never perform those types of transactions on the Internet.”

Two years later, after a change in leadership, the same organization will have deployed over 20 SaaS applications, moved 25% of its data center workloads to the cloud and implemented a mobile application that customers are avidly using to perform “those types of transactions.”

All the technologies and processes needed to accomplish these objectives were available to the prior team two years ago. However, they were unable to achieve similar results due to deficiencies in talent and teamwork. Action may be painful, but it is possible if leaders rectify the talent and teamwork issues within their organizations.

Where to start?

Talent debt can never be fully and completely rectified. But the most glaring gaps between current capabilities and future needs can be remedied one budget cycle at a time. Natural workforce attrition can also be used to rebalance staffing levels across the organization, slowly reducing staffing for aging tools and technologies and redeploying open headcount requisitions to recruit individuals with the skills and experience needed for IT to succeed in the future.

As unpleasant and difficult as it may be, forced attrition also plays a key role in sending messages to your team about skills that are no longer required, performance and accountability standards that will be enforced in the future and the consequences of compromising or undermining teamwork.

Technical debt remediation diverts time, money and management attention from more pressing and potentially more important initiatives, typically producing marginal gains in business functionality or business benefits. Funds budgeted for technical debt remediation are risk management investments designed to protect a company from the loss of critical IT capabilities or to reduce the recurring costs of such capabilities.

Talent debt remediation may be equally or more difficult to achieve but it is far more likely to produce tangible improvements in the productivity, effectiveness and credibility of the IT organization. It’s a value investment that will pay multiple dividends in the future.