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Succession Planning – what’s the point?

Genuinely, I get succession planning. I understand the need to have a backup plan.  Boost your bench strength.  Create a pipeline.  And other excruciating HR jargon.

Focusing on key positions within a company.  Working out who plays that role well and who can step in if that key person is no longer available to do that work the role demands makes all the sense in the world.

It’s like in American Football, (Ice) Hockey and Basketball : you have a depth chart.  The starting Tight End, Goaltender and Power Forward all have a back up and a back up to the back up.  In case of injury or type of play being called.

So it is in business.  A Senior Analyst.  With a back-up Analyst and a Junior Analyst in the wings.

The “what’s the point” line in the title for this though is more about the changing nature of jobs and work as we know it due to disruptions from digital, customer and employee experience / expectations, societal attitudes and more.  All the VUCA (or is it VERUCA!) stuff.

Today’s expert in sales conversations is tomorrow’s predictable jock who annoys potential customers so much that not a sale is made.

Today’s expert in coding is tomorrow’s liability of being highly skilled in redundant technology.

So the point is, just what are we succession planning to?  If roles are changing so much, why do we worry about the “bench strength”?

Well I’m going to try a different approach to succession planning – one less about a depth chart – because life isn’t totally like American Football or Hockey.

The different approach is to succession plan not for the roles you have, but for the roles that are coming up and maybe not even invented yet!  That may not be that much of a revelation as you’re already doing it.  It may seem like some silly thing a consultant would say.  Or it may actually be something to think about quite seriously.

So let’s assume you want to do this – a future scenario based succession planning approach. HOW would we do it?

The answers – I think – lie in some orthodox and unorthodox places.

The Military: the growth of counter-insurgent tactics, use of drones and technology has given rise to a new breed of defence personnel.  As a result, leadership, comradeship and trust have taken a bigger role from orders, tactics and strategies of the past.  In coping with this, smaller, close-knit units have emerged and even using the art of mindfulness has become a military must for frontline troops.  Succession planning here is less about replacing a younger version of like-for-like of an older “unit”.  It appears to be more about agility of mind and strength of resolve and less about identikit troops and leaders from military college with the armed forces equivalent of an MBA.  When Churchill famously commissioned the Commando units during WWII, this totally fresh perspective meant realigning existing troops skills to a “rebundled” role and not looking a pipeline of talent to take over existing lines.

Technology.  The development of new languages, interfaces and approaches to digital technology means again, less replace like-for-like and more about those creative and visionary programmers and designers who can deliver breakthroughs like touchscreen, motion/gesture and programming for machine learning.  With skills like experimentation, iteration and taking influence from obtuse sources like nature, physics and art, building a future-proof technology team isn’t based on programming language alone but the ability to envision, design and articulate.

Film-making.  Less about shooting moving pictures and more about a creative tapestry of multiple imaginations playing out as a story.  Sure there are stabilised roles like make-up, lighting and so on, yet it is the constant evolution of techniques which renders successors as difficult to groom and align.  It seems more like the experimenters and most imaginative professionals in this field are so unique, to create the next Kubrick; Cameron; Spielberg; Moldovar is Mission: Impossible.

What can we take from this?  If nothing else, identikit roles are on the decline, so succession is less about grow to fit something which is not static.  Roles are evolving faster than we’ve seen before, and instead, look at succession through the adjectives and competencies lenses of adaptability, change-readiness, experimentation, spirit, bravery, desire, imagination – I could go on.  So instead of back-filling roles three deep with succession to create the bench, bring the bench into play and have clever people work their way to adaptability through assignments, mentoring, immersive experimentation and using outlying influences to create more of a jazz musician than a classical expert.  And to some degree let this flowing course of work create the succession rather than you force it into a depth chart.

So maybe we’re now over “the next…” affliction.  The next Hawking, the next Obama, the next Mother Teresa and instead appreciate that as individuals, we should allow people to be the first Quantum Computing Interface Architect or Montessori Education Systems Designer.  I’m less fussed about the titles and more about the way we can organise a social construct – work in organisations – to a biological and spiritual entity – people – and get the best from this fusion.

Succession plan to a future not known and not to a role that is known.  Because if you can “codify” a human being to take over a role, chances are there’s an algorithm just waiting to take that work on and become the successor through automation.

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