I have a confession to make.

I am a trained Physicist and Engineer, which significantly influences the approach I take to the projects I have the privilege of leading for my clients. My training as a Physicist also makes me popular at cocktail parties. I know – hard to believe.

Anyway, one of the first things I try to do is to distill the purpose of the projects I am leading into their simplest terms. What is the current situation, what is the desired outcome, and how do we get there?

This is a hallmark of the Physicist’s approach to understanding the universe.

Human ResourcesLet’s take a casual stroll through your High School Physics course. We are all familiar with Einstein’s simple equation, E=mc2 – an equation that elegantly describes that matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. In Physics, we have seen the same pattern of simplification across the ages – from Newton’s three laws of motion to Maxwell’s equations to describe the relationship between electricity and magnetism. The insights from these simple equations have driven major scientific discoveries for centuries. You can thank Maxwell and Einstein for your iPhone as much as you can Steve Jobs.

Now I don’t want to take you back to the horror of High School Physics, which most people do their best to forget as quickly as possible. I just wanted to point out that the ability to express very difficult concepts in simple terms is a principle that drives physicists to think creatively in a way that drives future discovery. I also think these principles can help us generate more impactful talent initiatives.

So let’s apply this philosophy of simplification to the field of Executive Development and Talent Management. If we break our activities into their simplest component parts we arrive at something like this…

We feed a set of Inputs into a “Change Engine” to generate a set of desired Outputs.

I already know what you are saying, “What is a Change Engine and what does it have to do with Executive Development and Talent Management?”


For our purposes, let’s think of a Change Engine as the programs we design or the processes we implement to develop leaders and executives. The inputs are the individual leaders we invite into our programs and the outputs are “more effective leaders” with an improved set of skills, knowledge or insights.

We run our programs and processes to generate a change. So it seems to me that naming them Change Engines makes a lot of sense. If we do not want change – then why else spend the time and money to build and run programs that generate no change?

The question is, “Do we get the change we seek?”

When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we spend an awful lot of time and resources building “better” Change Engines and probably not enough time articulating exactly what the output should be or measuring the quality of the outputs our Change Engines produce. It’s not a stretch to point out that most of us struggle to measure the impact of many of our initiatives we deliver.

So perhaps we need to begin our “Change Engine” design process with a much clearer understanding of what we are trying to achieve by exploring three simple questions:

  • What will be different?
  • How would we know?
  • What could we measure?

A better understanding of the outputs our Change Engines should be generating should help us build more powerful and effective Change Engines. This helps us avoid “unnecessary complexity” and strip away “low value” elements in our developmental activities as well as encourages us to be creative and experiment with new approaches to achieve our clearly defined and measurable “target” outcomes.


So now that we are thinking in the simple terms of input, output, and change – I’d like to turn our attention to the field of Talent Management and ask you to participate in a thought experiment.

Why explore talent management using this technique? Well once again, if we are honest with ourselves, we will quickly realize that many of the processes and procedures we use to manage talent, our “Change Engine,” are extremely complex and difficult to use by non-experts, which in turn requires experts to facilitate and run the processes.

Its interesting work for us – but is this really the best solution we can find?

I often hear that leaders need to take more responsibility for managing and developing their talent – yet many time we provide them with tools and concepts that are unfathomable to them and then complain that they don’t use them properly.

Perhaps it’s time to lower the barrier to use and provide leaders with a simpler set of tools and processes?

So let’s begin our thought experiment by ask ourselves, “What are the outputs of the talent management process and how can we express them in the simplest terms?”

I would propose that, at its simplest level, the Talent Management process aims at generating a deeper understanding of the following:

  • The composition of the talent pool we have in the organization and the associated cost of that talent.
  • The composition and amount of talent we will want or need to achieve our strategic goals and the cost of buying or making it.
  • The composition of the talent that is available outside the organization and the form and price at which it can be accessed.

Now let’s define “talent” as the set of skills, knowledge, experience, and interpersonal behavioural characteristics that an individual brings to an organization.

My next question to you is, “What are the set of actions that can be used to change the composition of the organization’s talent and is your TM Change Engine designed to generate or facilitate these actions?”

Now I will suggest that there are only four decisions available to any organization to alter the composition of their talent pool, which are:

  1. Hire or Buy: What set of skills, knowledge, experience, and interpersonal behavioural characteristics do we need to acquire or purchase from the external market to achieve our business objectives?
  2. Move or Separate: Which individuals are in the wrong roles and can we move them to a more productive use – or is their combination of skills, knowledge, experience, and interpersonal behavioural characteristics no longer needed
  3. Develop or Build: What set of skills, knowledge, experience, and interpersonal behavioural characteristics do we need to achieve our business objectives and can we “build” those capabilities internally?
  4. Promote and Compensate: Which individuals are currently being underutilized and is there an opportunity to put them into more impactful roles? What is the fair-market value of each individual’s contribution to the organization’s success and is there a need to change the price we pay for their talent?

Now I can already hear you saying, “Mike, you have oversimplified the outputs and the definition of the talent management process. We need to put processes, frameworks, and tools in place to assess our talent, we need to put processes in place to forecast demand and composition of our talent in the future, and we need to put developmental options in place that build the talent we need for the future! This is complicated work because we are dealing with people.”

You are absolutely correct! These processes, frameworks, and tools need to be put in place to manage talent effectively across our rapidly changing organizations.

The question I will leave you with is, “Are the processes, frameworks, and tools you have in place – or are considering – helping leaders make the only four decisions that have any impact on the inventory, quality, and composition of the organization’s talent? Are these processes, frameworks, and tools generating the information that leaders need to make these decisions, and are these processes, frameworks, and tools easy for leaders to navigate, understand, and use?”

If the honest answer to any of these questions is “not really” – or a majority of leaders in your organization complain about the complexity of the system, then I suggest it’s time to build a better Change Engine to manage the talent in your organization.

Remember – keep it simple. If Einstein can account for everything in the universe with one elegant and simple equation – then perhaps we can use our creativity to build a Talent Management Change Engine that can be understood and effectively used by “mere mortals.”