A talent system for managing the chaos of insurgency

Founder's Mentality - A talent system for managing the chaos of insurgencyHere’s a first: I am going to argue that Bain’s talent systems might help founder-led companies manage chaos. For reasons I will try to explain, our people seem to thrive in chaos. Let me say at the outset, though, that I submit this blog humbly. I’m not trying to promote my own company. However, talent is one of our primary product offerings to clients and our systems for delivering it are therefore somewhat different than is the norm in the business world.

A big issue leaders of insurgent companies face as they grow is how they can maintain the insurgency. Put another way—how do they continue to act as revolutionaries redefining industries, rather than as incumbents fighting for share within commonly accepted industry boundaries? We’ve divided the problem into two parts:

  1. How do companies maintain, or in some cases rediscover, the original insurgent mission and the core strategic insight that led to their successes? We’ve covered this using the case study of CavinKare and our conclusions about the need for strategic balance.
  2. How do companies build the right capabilities to keep the insurgency alive? In our discussions in Mumbai, we concluded that a big part of the answer is that organizations should continue to embrace chaos as it scales.

Almost by definition, companies with a Founder’s MentalitySM create chaos and thrive in it initially. They will do whatever it takes to win and maintain a customer, tailoring their products and solutions to fit the customer’s needs. They work at speed, embrace the need for fast adaptation and create a culture that encourages their people to jump at the customer’s call.

For the rest of the company’s history, however, it will fight a battle between embracing good chaos (all the actions necessary to provide customized solutions for local customers) and eliminating bad chaos (the impulse to create bespoke solutions for every problem, which leads to exponential growth in complexity as the company adds customers and talent).

So, how do you embrace the good chaos? As we’ve discussed, the Mumbai group determined it is important to distinguish between the “what” and the “how” when it comes to serving customers, meaning companies should strive to localize what they offer but globalize how they deliver solutions. We’ll return to this in later blogs.

But it’s also crucial to create an organization that is ready to accept the chaos inherent in jumping onto customer solutions, moving from project to project, and accepting whatever it takes. This is where the “Bain model” might be instructive.

Our world is chaotic for several reasons: First, our business succeeds only by doing whatever it takes for customers, doing it with speed and providing local solutions for local needs. But we can’t plan by forecasting product sales because our “product” is the sum of integrated programs we co-create with clients. And our people have no idea at the beginning of the year which customers they will work with, which bosses they will have internally, or who they will work with internally or externally day to day.

So, in terms of chaos, that’s pretty good: little ability to forecast with any specificity the products you will sell or how you will deploy your people. Yet, our people thrive in this environment (for more than a decade they’ve told us Bain is the best place to work). How is that possible? Let me point out three things we do pretty well.

1. Mindset. We remind our people from Day 1 that chaos is a great thing and encourage them to view their careers as the sum of the fantastic results stories they were part of, the wonderful clients they worked with and the talented teams they got to know. They will have multiple bosses during the year and many of them might become life-long mentors. Of course, over time, they will develop deep expertise and will begin to specialize in key areas. But that will evolve and shouldn’t be rushed.

Many corporations I know preach “stability and predictability” as a big part of their career proposition—you will know what you are doing, who you are doing it with and how you will progress through very stable career lanes. Because there is no customer benefit in “predictability,” our people learn to embrace and love chaos.

2. Building support tools and processes. Because our competitiveness depends on our ability to quickly mobilize and demobilize great teams to solve our clients’ most urgent issues, it is really important that we have world-class systems to help manage the ensuing chaos. Here are three examples:

  • Separating career-long mentors from case-specific input reviewers. Throughout their time at Bain, our people have mentors who help with their development and advocate on their behalf. These mentors write their reviews (which we take very seriously) based on “case-input reviews” from all the folks that person worked with during the year. This system rewards movement and teamwork, unlike many corporate systems where there is no upside for working outside your “lane.” In those systems, your line boss can get angry at your absence (even if it was demanded by the higher-ups) and your temporary boss is never plugged into the review process to give kudos. It is a big problem.
  • Creating world-class staffing officers who match supply and demand. We’ve got thousands of folks shifting around, some mobilizing for a new assignment, others demobilizing from an old one. It is crucial to have really good people managing the flow and handling appeals. Our clients demand that we provide the right people to address their issues. Our people demand meaningful and diverse experiences. Making the right matches involves both science and art, and we invest in it. It isn’t an ad hoc thing we do; it is core to what we do. Many of our staffing officers are stars from our core business. But that’s not the norm in the business world—at many companies, the support given to mobilization and demobilization is spotty at best.
  • Making sure transitions are frictionless. As a senior partner, I would love to describe a world where my skills and expertise are critical to this system working. But alas, this would be an oversimplification. The system depends hugely on the skills of our case-team managers, who must arrive at the new assignment, mobilize the team, incorporate people’s career plans into case activities and make sure the hand-off to the next manager is done well. This takes time and skill, and our people are trained to be very good at it. Again, it is key to what they do, not a distraction from what they do. At most corporations, managing chaos is a distraction, not a core part of the job.

3. Celebrating successes. The third skill involves rewards. The point of the job is to help a client get results, and we encourage our people to celebrate those “results stories” and collect them over their careers. Their orientations are external and their search for recognition more often than not comes from the customer. This is really critical to managing chaos, because if your people don’t see reward in better serving customers—the sole object of chaos—you’re doomed from the start. In large corporations, recognition is too often derived exclusively from internal successes, while big successes with customers—as measured by those customers—aren’t celebrated.

In describing this model, I’m aware there are reasons it might not be right for every organization. But let me answer a couple of the most common objections.

The obvious one is that most people in corporations are highly specialized—they are simply not as fungible as consultants and therefore not so easily shuffled around. This is true to an extent, but the real question is whether this corporate passion for specialization and staying in lanes creates more problems than it solves. When companies are young and responsive, they specialize in throwing SWAT teams of generalists at problems and letting heroes perform miracles. Why can’t you assemble a team of incredibly motivated young people, aim them at a problem and fire? Think of the leaders that you could create—people who have solved real-world problems across every region and every function in their early years. Recruit raw talent and train specialization over time.

Another objection is that many corporate projects last for years and demand continuity of leadership. In other words, there is little need for mobilizing and demobilizing teams at the pace demanded by Bain. Again, it’s true that corporations have large, multiyear initiatives. But the best are also adept at fast adaptation and speed of execution. That typically creates multiple projects that require teams to jump on and jump off. That is the essence of adaptation.

To maintain an insurgency, you must embrace chaos. Embracing chaos demands the right mindset, a world-class infrastructure to channel chaos and the constant celebration of delighted customers—which is the ultimate reason for chaos. Our approach may have something to offer.

This entry was posted in The paths to Great Repeatable Models by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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