“Something wicked this way comes.”
The first sentence should be familiar to many readers since it is drawn from the novel of the same title, made famous by the horror and science fiction author, Ray Bradbury.
To further make use of magician-speak, the sentence will probably also “conjure up” a recollection of work-related problems we’ve all encountered in the course of our careers, that at one time or another (or maybe even still) seem to defy solution.
Chipping Away at the List
The beginning of a new year brought the realization that a couple of these “wicked” human capital problems on our list had actually succumbed to a solution over the last couple of years, and a few of those solutions may be pretty close to the leading edge – and not something “adapted” from somebody else. And note my stipulation of “a solution”, which may not necessarily represent the solution.
What exactly did we come up with? Among others, the solution with the broadest human capital application, was our effort to run-to-ground a sustainable and repeatable approach to knowing approximately how many promotions, and at what grade levels, we should plan for in a cycle year. Easy, right? Yeah, we thought so too. However, no solution deemed acceptable could rely on past historical promotion practice, or simply be a function of the anticipated promotion budget that would be available. Eliminating history and budget as either of the principal drivers, and requiring a repeatable, empirical process to generate an independent recommendation every year, placed this problem squarely in the “wicked” column.
Chicken vs. Egg – The Problem or the Problem Solver?
Those end-year musings got me asking maybe the more important question about how those problems got solved exactly? While a handful of these problems were more recent, some of them had been on our list for longer than 10 years, and others have probably been on ours or someone else’s “list” at work much longer. And I suspect more than a couple of our problems probably show up on everyone’s list.
So, what was the factor or combination of factors that moved us in the direction of a solution? Did the problems just get easier? Was there some kind of technological breakthrough which enabled us to “draw a line” between two previously unconnected dots? Was it the make-up of the people? Did some internal or external variable(s) change that made identifying a solution more urgent or time-sensitive? Was it over time, we just got smarter (which may or may not include me)? Or was it some kind of change in the workplace environment or other dynamic which allowed improved or more frequent collaboration to occur?
And it’s worth noting that in some instances we were already working from an existing solution to a particular problem set – which to our credit we suspected had a better alternative, or to our shame, we subsequently discovered our solution was completely incorrect. These things happen.
Unwitting Changes to The Secret Sauce?
Two weeks before Christmas last year, I appeared on a government panel to discuss our organization’s practices and some of our more notable recent successes. During the question and answer segment, an audience member asked me what the answer to our success really was. After brief reflection, my perhaps too-glib response was, “Well, you know – there is no secret sauce to what we do”. After the obligatory laughter faded, I tried to articulate some of the keys to our celebrity, but without a great deal of success.
Looping Back to the Beginning
The ingredients of our “secret sauce” continued to elude us for another couple of weeks, until the subject unexpectedly came up during one of our weekly meetings with our HR Director. After a brief, but spirited discussion, we were able to unanimously conclude that the “secret” to our recent problem-solving was a function of the capability of the staff, but also complemented by a supportive and empowering attitude by leadership – along with a willingness to acknowledge that we actually had problems. After that, identifying solutions became a lot easier.
Because as we all know, recognizing that you have a wicked problem is the first step.
Everyone probably has a different perspective. What’s yours?
Chris Dobyns, CCP, CBP, is Manager of the Office of Human Resource Strategies for one of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies. The Office of Human Resource Strategies is responsible for compensation and incentives, occupational structure, recognition and rewards, HR policy, and human capital program evaluation and assessment for his Agency. Chris has worked in the area of compensation for more than 30 years, and has been employed in various compensation-related positions by a number of large, private sector companies including, Sears, Roebuck, Arizona Public Service and Westinghouse Savannah River Company.