There was an interesting nugget that I recently read in Clay Christensen’s “How will you measure your life?” about the impact of high performer management fast track programmes: that they train leaders in organisations to be less innovative.

Christensen (who is probably best known for his earlier book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”) argues that such streaming approaches lead to senior managers and leaders who are unable to think in anything but the short term. Such programmes usually involve people being identified as “high potential” talent, and then being put through a series of 18-24 month role assignments. The short tenure of such appointments means that, to continue on the fast track, such talent need to make judgements in their work that err towards things that will deliver results in the short term. And that means that longer-term activities fall by the wayside. By the time such people arrive at the top, they’ve lost the ability to think at longer horizons, and as a result so does the organisation.

This is an interesting hypothesis. I guess that the contrary argument would be that in our modern market, time spans beyond a couple of years are too long, both in terms of the market in which most organisations operate, and in terms of what is expected by shareholders.

But the short-term focus of some industries isn’t universal (lord help us if, say, transport infrastructure, pension providers or healthcare is only being framed in 18 month windows); and not all truly innovative disruption can be brought to market so quickly either. “Talent management” itself is surely a long game too? (As an aside, as someone whose past is linked intrinsically to the television business, “talent” for me always conjures up images of stroppy, overpaid primadonnas).

Maybe this all reflects something of the stages of development of organisations. From founder-led, long term visionaries to eventually bureaucratic, shorter-term dividend machines. Whichever, Christensen’s observation does certainly ask a question of how innovative our institutions will become if short term return is all that people are trained and rewarded to deliver when in positions of seniority?

2 thoughts on “The fast track to zero innovation

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