Most large companies are a collection of silos, with employees who are so focused on their area of specialization they may be missing key opportunities and threats. This hack proposes we Mix It Up and break the silos.
Mixing could take many formats - whatever works for the organization. This hack focuses on “Mix Visits” through temporary rotations where employees "visit" other areas to bring their skills, knowledge, and experience to the problems faced elsewhere AND to gain knowledge, perspective, and interpersonal connections that can help them to advance in their "regular" jobs. This builds the “muscle” of adaptability through broader experience, faster and more embedded learning through taking risks and increased comfort with making transitions. It gives an opportunity to gain different perspectives and to expand knowledge of the range of capabilities existing in the organization.
In addition there can be numerous side benefits such as enabling employees to discover something they love, developing their careers without a ‘risky’ permanent commitment, enhancing employee engagement, increasing operational effectiveness through improved cross-functional coordination, enabling managers to spot talent, and encouraging innovation.
Human nature is such that people like habit, familiarity, status quo. But organisations today need employees who can anticipate the need for adaptability, who can then adapt themselves and flow to where they are needed.
To be adaptable means disrupting the status quo which feels uncomfortable for many so they don’t do it.
The larger a company gets, the more specialized and disparate the organization becomes. People work in silos and don’t have the opportunity to gain a broader, more diverse perspective of how the company makes money, or of the end-to-end operational processes. This lack of understanding of revenue drivers and broader organizational processes can alienate employees so that they are unable to identify threats and opportunities and therefore have difficulty recognizing the need for change. This lack of appreciation of the bigger picture can also have them feel disengaged with the overall purpose of the organization so they just come to work to do their job and go.
These silos also lead to closed mindsets towards other teams, where people are not able to comprehend why a colleague from a different group acts the way he does (what are his constraints and limitations that are making him behave thus?). This often leads to disagreements (not constructive discussion or debate) and ultimately a breakdown in communication. Even if a company uses a rotation program to provide entry-level new hires exposure to different parts of the business, once "settled" in an area, people build greater depth in that function and can lose sight of the bigger picture.
In some organizations, leadership development programs/talent management efforts select individuals to move to new parts of the business in order to gain broader business experience. These arrangements are made for select individuals as a way of developing them for more senior, complex roles. Clearly, it is not good enough - the same exercise needs to be repeated at different levels of the organization if it is truly going to make a difference to the ‘way things get done’.
Some organizations pull together diverse teams to fix operational problems or innovate new products/services/businesses but if infrequent and/or only resourced from ‘the top talent’ then no significant adaptability change will be seen.
All such programs are concerned with the development of key talent segments or ensuring right skills for right job. And they are only for a niche population. HR establishes policies and procedures and takes an active role in managing these types of rotational programs rather than leaders always being proactive in supporting their team with opportunities.
While HR may encourage rotational assignments as an important mechanism for career development, top talent development and retention, and creation of the next generation of leaders, there is also a need for a solution which creates business outcomes such as operational efficiency, opportunities for innovation, flexible redeployment of resources, or adaptability to continuous change. Keeping these two elements mutually exclusive limits the possibilities of what an organization can achieve.
Typical barriers to rotational assignments include managers’ reluctance to release a resource to another part of the organization. Performance demands are high and managers are required to “do more with less”, so they can ill afford to be “short” of resources. This “talent hoarding” reinforces myopic, inwardly-focused thinking but which is often ‘encouraged’ by the performance appraisal process - requiring them to keep delivering results or take the consequence of losing out on a salary increase or bonus.
Without experience of accommodating temporary resource changes, managers may feel ill-equipped to handle them. For employees, If people stay in their comfort zone and don’t practice making transitions to new areas, leveraging the skills they have and personally adapting to a new function, role or department, it can be daunting to do so when business conditions call for it.
Create situations where people 1) have the chance to see an opportunity or threat that requires change, therefore driving the need for adaptability from within the organisation, not just from the outside or top down and 2) gain practice and comfort with adapting to shifts in assignments.
This can be done by creating a regular flow of people to different areas through temporary rotational assignments (Mix Visits).
By making a move to another team or a new project, employees learn more and faster than by staying in their safe comfort zone of the work and team they know. By creating the capability to enable these types of assignments, managers find creative ways to meet current demands with minimal disruption and bring new insights and abilities back to their teams.
Mix It Up is a way for anyone to gain experience and build knowledge of other parts of the organization while contributing their own skills and knowledge in a new way. And these don’t have to be a traditional ‘secondment’ away from the employee’s permanent work. It could be that the employee spends a couple of days a week in their visiting team, or it could be a brand new cross functional team that’s created to work on a specific project - bringing together a variety of expertise to work together (again, maybe just a couple of days a week, maybe full time). The key is that this is about MIXING - by removing the ‘rules’ around HOW you mix, it should encourage leaders to invite people in, to mix in a way that works for them.
To facilitate adoption, the duration of the assignment and the nature of the work performed should be simple to organize, manageable, and require minimal investment for the organization. HR’s role is to engage the leadership team in how the organization will benefit, set leaders up to engage their teams with this and then facilitate these temporary rotations by using a simple process and guidelines, and measure its effectiveness.
For enterprise-wide adoption, there is also a significant cultural ‘ask’ of the CEO and the leadership team. To embrace this fully, leaders need to have a mindset that believes everyone has talent and can contribute in different ways, and that there is value in having employees experience different aspects of the business -- both to understand how the business generates value and to create informal networks within the organization that facilitate operational effectiveness and innovation. It also requires them to have a mindset that enabling employees to learn quickly, sometimes through making mistakes, and doing something different, will set them apart from the competition. To achieve this, the whole HR strategy needs to be geared to developing this culture and mindset - recruitment, development, reward, performance management and communication.
Key components include communicating the objectives of Mix It Up and setting the expectation of participation as part of the company’s culture (i.e., it’s how we do things around here); setting a few simple guidelines (e.g., ensuring coverage when away from the “day” job; visiting a new area each year; sharing what was learned); defining a process for coordinating the rotation among the employee, his/her regular manager, and the “receiving” manager of the temporary assignment; coaching leaders on implementation; assessing the effectiveness of the practice for increasing organizational adaptability as well as any other benefits (innovation, engagement, internal staffing, etc.)
Launching Mix It Up is, in itself, a change that impacts organizational culture. As in any change initiative, it is critical to have credible, senior-level support to overcome initial resistance and articulate a vision that others find compelling and energizing.
To facilitate adoption, it is recommended that an organization leverage existing processes. For example, it might utilize its existing performance and development planning process and on-line job posting or social media platform as mechanisms for facilitating rotations. In this case, as part of the annual performance and development planning process, managers and their direct reports could identify other teams where the employee could benefit from an assignment and establish accountability for organizing Mix It Up Visits.
During the course of the year, managers would identify short-term assignments, projects, etc. that would benefit from an additional resource and would specify the key skills required for that assignment. These opportunities could be communicated via the company’s job posting system or internal social network. Where possible a company might utilize a more automated matching process based on skills and interests of the employee in relation to the skill requirements for the assignment. Mix Visits could be promoted via a marketing campaign -- to remind people to look at opportunities. Also, employees might receive emails listing opportunities that fit their skills and interests (based on an automated matching system).
Employees would search for short-term assignments in the teams they had identified for potential rotation, and connect with the assignment manager to determine if a rotation could be established. (This could be a quick screening conversation, since detailed assessment and interviewing wouldn’t be necessary for a short-term, temporary arrangement.) Alternatively, matching could be automated and matches made on a first come, first-served basis, which could enhance the speed of response and remove any subjectivity from selection. Upon accepting the assignment, the employee would coordinate with his/her regular manager to confirm timing, duration, etc., and arrange for back-up/coverage during the Mix Visit.
To assist with getting the rotating employee quickly “up to speed” for the rotational assignment, it is recommended that the accepting team provide an overview of the team’s function, objectives, staffing, etc.and describe how that team contributes to the organization. This could be available online for anyone to view, which also means it can be read before starting the visit. The team’s manager could also assign a “buddy” for the rotating employee -- to help make introductions and answer questions.
Upon completion of the rotation, the visiting employee and assignment manager will ensure that any on-going work is transitioned back to the team. The visiting employee, upon returning to his/her regular team, will share reflections and insights from the experience -- especially what was accomplished and what he/she learned.
HR’s role could include that of “scrum master” -- assisting the managers and visiting employees by addressing any obstacles that may arise in establishing or conducting the “Mix It Up” Visit.
Rather than creating complex rules and procedures, Mix It Up would follow these simple rules:
Keep it simple, but not boring -- Leverage rotating employee’s skills; set them up to contribute
Never leave anyone in the lurch -- arrange for smooth transitions when making the move to and from teams
Virtual works too! -- Minimize cost/disruption of travel; include remote workers
Don’t “pass the trash” -- Anyone on a final performance warning shouldn’t Mix It Up
Learning goes both ways -- share knowledge and reflect on the learning
Typical challenges with internal mobility programs, such as Mix It Up, is reluctance on the part of managers to give up a resource and manage a heavy workload or to put forth the time and effort needed to get someone new to the team up and running, especially when that individual is a temporary resource.
For employees, the challenge will be to feel comfortable being absent from their regular jobs -- either because they must deal with a large backlog of work upon their return, fear of rejection if they are not chosen for the assignment, or -- if absent for an extended period -- finding that they’ve put their job security at risk.
To overcome these challenges, managers and their staff will need to arrange for sufficient back-up/coverage so that the team’s deliverables are not jeopardized while the employee conducts the rotational assignment. In addition, the length of the rotation should not create a burden for the releasing manager nor jeopardize the employee’s regular position. The absence from the regular position should be treated similar to vacation or jury duty.
Managers also need to encourage their employees to undertake rotational assignments -- setting the expectation that the whole team benefits from it -- not just the individual employee.
Receiving managers and their teams may need to put information and processes in place to assimilate the rotating employee; however, this process would be repeatable for all newcomers to the team -- whether they be regular employees or Mix Visitors. Ideally this would be available online so that it’s easily updated and accessed.
Finally, it is important to recognize the work that was accomplished, the learning achieved, and the relationships fostered as part of this program. With a few positive experiences, all parties will begin to develop comfort with this program and even look forward to utilizing resources differently to get work done.
1) Identify managers of at least two teams who find merit in the idea and wish to participate in a pilot.
2) Work with the business managers to articulate the business case for the program and to set the parameters. Business involvement in the design of the program is essential for buy-in and commitment as well as for creating a process that can be practically implemented. Get at the level of their belief systems -- what is it they believe about adaptability and how this practice will foster organizational adaptability? There needs to be a clear “why” that touches both the rational/objective and the emotional/values-based criteria.
3) Identify existing organizational practices and technologies that could be used to facilitate “making a market” and matching people to opportunities.
4) Start small and build the foundation, e.g., make the first assignment putting together information about the team (i.e., the person taking the rotational assignment collects information that would be used to assimilate anyone new coming to the team -- including written materials and information collected from interviewing and shadowing team members).
5) Communicate the program objectives, process and timeline. Establish a few simple rules.
6) As “matches” are made, collect that information for post-pilot assessment.
7) Conduct pilot with a few employees participating (managers will need to coordinate rotations so that not too many people are in transition simultaneously). It is recommended that the first rotations include manager rotations. By gaining first-hand experience, managers may be more receptive to having their staff rotate too.
8) Conduct post-pilot assessment (what was learned, attitudes about redeployment/rotational experience)
Wait ….there’s more! Read how companies have applied the Mix It Up concept to onboarding and employee development -- accelerating the return on investment and fueling adaptability.
The story of the MIU Approach to Development
It is 2015. The world is still coping with the state of financial and socioeconomic affairs that hit the markets almost 10 years ago. We knew it would take a long time, but people were not necessarily prepared for this long a haul.
Nevertheless, there is an acceptance of the situation and there is something almost endearing about the way people are coping and making as a good a situation as they can out of the flatlined economic situation.
The rise of the BRICS nations and the emerging economies such as Malaysia,Indonesia, Nigeria and Vietnam are taking shape as predicted. A rising middle class in the Indian sub-continent, Brazil and China is reshaping some of where the manufacturing and commerce occurs. London, New York, Beijing, Tokyo - begin to look more like city-states than cities and economic prosperity there is healthier than in rural and smaller city areas.
A trend though, has started to develop around work. Open source has set the stage for creating a market for talent -- matching capable and interested workers with assignments. Work is shifting its makeup into patterns that are varied from region to region and state to state. New oil reserves and carbon emission controls are bringing more responsibility to bear and Western thinkers, leaders, experts and entrepreneurs are helping shape the African and Asian industries. And they are using one particular method to share their experiences and help others learn. They are - quite literally - mixing it up.
Education establishments in the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy are booming to the sound of affluent African, Middle Eastern, Asian and South American students. Quickly though, academia has realised that it can only take people so far along this journey - hence the adoption of an HR-built philosophy - learning through Mixing it up. The MIU approach was developed by a cross-nation team of HR "hackers". Invited by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (the UK's largest HR professional body) this small team developed an approach -- initially targeted at building organizational adaptability -- which rocked the very foundation of the MBA programmes academia was previously so sure of.
The way it works is like this. Let's take Melissa - a graduate from New Zealand working in Singapore; and Hassan, a Qatari graduate who was educated in Boston. Melissa is a business analyst for a huge financial services organisation. Hassan is an engineer specialising in precious metals. Melissa studied at Wellington University and on graduating was taken on bya large PAC-Asia banking organisation. They had already heard of the Mix It Up approach and had started to fuse this method with their graduate intake programme. Melissa was the first to benefit from a totally MIU approach to the first 18 months of her career.
Melissa takes up the story. "So once I applied for this position and was selected and accepted via a virtual assessment centre exercise and Skype interview, I downloaded the company on-boarding app and was given my contract; security QR code and details of my flight and accommodation in Singapore.
The company had a campus and flats near to their operational HQ and all I had to do was pack my things. I was then taken to the orientation meeting on day one and assigned a support worker who helped me with setting up my accommodation and local know-how. I felt self-sufficient within 24 hours."
Melissa continues. "Then the fun began when I was enrolled - through the same app - into the bank's MIU scheme. I had heard of this approach but this was my first taste. I was given a questionnaire; an online psychometric test and appointed a business mentor. The mentor was Jacques, a Canadian who moved to SIngapore 3 years ago and worked in the M&A department. I had a meeting with Jacques on campus and we got to know each other well during that first meeting. What Jacques also showed me on his tablet, was a range of MIU assignments that were in the holding bay of the company's project bank.
I had the honour of being the first MIU "student" to select a project. I chose the exciting looking programme to work up the company's consulting footprint around sports commercial banking and investment. I was to advise sporting enterprises on the best way to make their money work for them." In order to do this, I needed to know more about the company products as they stood, needed to research the sports market in Asia - particularly - and then how to go about researching potential clients and a plan of action for ours sales team to get involved in building on leads."
It looked like a consuming project but I was also told to take on a second project not to lead on but to be a part of the team for. This one was around women in leadership in the bank. I felt passionate about this and could work with HR and the company's Marketing VP who was the only woman on the top. Coupled with the work on these 2 programmes and a business mentor, the MIU approach also forms a relationship with others who started with me. It felt like a graduate programme but this was real work with a specific group of people in the business I could call on. There was also taught content to consume. This came in three ways.
Firstly the campus I lived on was home to an academy. There were 2 workshops per week around a range of business-related topics delivered by internal and external experts. I could pick and choose these as I felt suited.
Secondly, there was a programme of online information in the form of learning apps and short just-in-time programmes which I had downloaded onto my company mini-tablet. Then I enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) from the famous MIT around sports psychology and leadership in sport. I would study this in whatever time frame I chose and alongside my working projects.
"At every key point throughout this experience I had help. Note, I didn't have a line manager. I had Jacques, I had my cohort, I had HR folks, and I had my teams (virtual and physical) to help me. I was self-sufficient, I had guidance but I had control and I learned more in the 4 months I drove the main programme and cooperated on the second programme than I dreamed I could. It was practical. It was relevant. It felt safe.
I made a name for myself and the project ended up with me leading on sports banking work in Japan and China for their professional soccer leagues. I applied MIU approaches to the teams who came onstream to work for me - they picked projects; had 3 months to work on them, then once familiar with the skills and knowledge they needed, they came on board.
I don't believe there's any such thing as "oven-ready" employees but within a few months, there's a huge amount of learning that comes from MIU approach. I will ALWAYS adopt this approach in the future and recently turned down a short programme at a leading business school in favour of my own constructed MIU approach for my next working assignment".
We asked Melissa for the most important lesson taken from this and she said "it was the patience the company demonstrated in making sure that people weren't thrown into the deep end without a lifebelt. Instead they were asked to build up their skills gradually and work was positioned in that way. Clients seemed to love the fresh perspective but the informed account managers they were given through this approach to the point that the majority of our clients now adopt MIU approaches and we have even taken to exchanging people with them and vice versa."
It is thanks to the foresight of Harry Anderson that Melissa has had these opportunities. Harry saw how social networks, MOOC, and Open Source methods of sourcing talent were changing the world of work and was enabling greater adaptability. He was passionate about putting his company at the forefront in attracting, developing and retaining the best talent by providing opportunities for employees to “mix it up” and creating a support foundation to ensure successful execution.
Like most visionaries, Harry had many obstacles to overcome to bring his dream to reality. The existing hierarchical organization structure, approval processes, budgeting and fund allocations all supported a traditional command and control operation. He would need to figure out how to evolve a program from within this existing environment.
Harry chose to take an entrepreneurial approach -- creating small pilot “experiments” to test out different scenarios and learn what was sustainable and could be scaled. He started by identifying a couple of department heads who shared his vision and were concerned about the risks of retaining the status quo for talent deployment and development. They were early adopters of social media technology and had sourced temporary consulting staff from Open Source sites. They, themselves, had careers marked by varied assignments and knew, first-hand, the value of these different experiences.
This small team of change agents drove the initial “Mix It Up” pilot by having their managers post projects needing additional temporary and/or part-time resources and enabling their employees to negotiate time away from their regular jobs to fill these project needs. They monitored the pilot to better understand what pitfalls to avoid and what steps to take to ensure win-win experiences for the managers, employees, and the business. The productivity, innovation, and engagement metrics all saw such significant improvement that others took notice and soon other parts of the company were clamoring to extend these practices to their groups.
From there, it was a natural progression that led to incorporating the mix-it-up approach with learning and development efforts-- from entry level through senior management.
When we spoke to Hassan, his story was similar except the number of MIU projects he was working on were shorter and in more different areas. Hassan takes up the story "I moved to Boston as our company's production and lab for precious metals research was there and I moved my young family with me from Qatar. It felt like I was going back to school at first with lots of pastoral care given and gentle introductions to people and the place of work. But then I went to an event with 40 other graduates and scientists. I was surprised to find a 50/50 split on new and experienced scientists. It was then I heard about the MIU approach that the company had successfully run for the last 3 years. People given projects and assignments in various aspects of the company - some non-scientific - as part of a curriculum with a coach, a group of fellow learners, a series of study days and a range of digital materials on the company Virtual Learning Lab (VLL)."
Hassan continues - "So after 3 days together looking at the approach, the psychology of learning and much of the companies successes and challenges, we were given assignments based on our skills profiles, expertise and predetermined aspirations where we thought we would do best.
I was given 3 research projects; a stint in the company R&D department; a short stay with the sales and events team and a trip to South Africa to spend time with our mining franchise." This all took place within the first 8 months of being with the company. Real work, but nothing day-to-day about it. I had projects to lead, be part of and work up. I had people to see and understand their role. I had a coach who worked in the HR team based in New York, I had a range of journals and materials sent specifically to me on the VLL".
"It felt like practical work fused with study where things clicked very quickly. I learned so much about the R&D teams challenges and the latest innovations. I set up a precious metals special interest group to help them with ideas on where precious metals use could help innovation on product lines. I felt productive and whilst learning, I felt useful. I believed MIU was the best thing I had seen in corporate learning and my 20 colleagues who graduated at the same time as me were all envious as they had simply been put to work."
Hassan concludes "I am now leading on a major programme for catalytic products for the company. This is all down to being given time to learn and explore through MIU. I still study via the VLL, I still have a coach although this is more about my leadership skills now than anything technical or my own confidence. I wish MIU had the same "clout" as an MBA as I think I know so much more about business that I don't need an MBA but would love to have the letters MIU against my name."
So there's 2 distinct but related posts that demonstrate how patient, planned project-based learning has helped accelerate 2 people's effectiveness in key roles. Sure there's learning on the job, and mentoring and all things before this, but the blended approach, the experiential methods and the responsibility given to learning with support, proves the MIU "wrap around" is for the learner and not the learning provider.
We hope you enjoyed our 2 stories sharing the benefits of the MIU approach. MIU is not an out of the box solution; more a set a ideals, frameworks, options,tactics and a mindset to learning that anyone of any size can adopt. We look forward to hearing more stories about the MIU approach. Let's Mix It Up.
Deb Seidman, Helen Amery, Sam Folk-Williams, Madhusudan Rao, Perry Timms, Leonardo Zangrando