Should you embrace IT turnover? or discourage it?

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mban68l.jpgGoing through my usual read list, two posts (here and here) perked up my interest. As a part of my day job, I get to advise and effect changes in HR systems of a variety of clients in the course of a project. During the last couple of assignments, I’ve been focusing on getting HR to realize the value of a talented employee vs a mediocre employee and then implement policies benefiting each. Obviously, the reasoning here is that an IT organization is only as good as its people and if you want to be the best, you need to keep the best around, and we all know that this doesn’t happen. Talented people jump ship quickly, while the less talented people stay on. How should you be tackling this situation? Read on.

In the same vein as my previous argument, Bruce Webster, in his post titled the Dead Sea Effect, very succinctly describes why it happens that the best people keep on moving while it is the mediocre people who tend to stick around becoming ‘indispensable’ to an organization. Likening it to the dead sea, he explains:

The Dead Sea, of course, is a large body of water between Israel and Jordan, located well below sea level. The Jordan River empties into it; water leaves only by evaporation, which means that over the eons, the Dead Sea has become very salty (e.g., 8x saltier than the ocean). As such, it is generally unable to support life, except when spring floods temporarily lower the salinity

Pretty much in the same fashion, organization’s become like the dead sea, when talented employee’s are the first ones to leave (or evaporate), either because a) they don’t want to put up with the problems inherent to the organization or b) they have the opportunity to move on. What is left behind is the residue, or people who are not exceptionally talented but still grateful enough to have a job to put up with whatever is thrown at them in the form of organizational nuances, such as bleak pay rises, strict control policies and so on. (These people eventually increase the salinity of the organization so much, that creativity and productivity – the life force of an IT organization – almost cease to exist)

This argument is extended by Alex Papadimoulis of DailyWTF through the reasoning that just like people need to embrace that they are not immortal and will cease to exist someday, both employees and employers need to realize that someday employees will quit! Not only that, but also that quitting is not necessarily a bad thing. While employee retention has become all the rage nowadays, what with the talent pool being considerably less than desired and the high costs of recruiting a new employee, when one couples it with the fact that there are only a few kinds of people who would stay behind and these are generally the kind you do not want there, one realizes that something else needs to be done.

400px-maslows_hierarchy_of_needssvg.pngAlex further states, that the reason skilled and talented people quit is quite evident when you consider maslows hierarchy of needs. For the unacquainted, Maslows hierarchy states that human needs fall into five distinct types from Phycsiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem and finally to Self Actualization, all in the form of a pyramid. The needs trangress to higher levels when the lower levels have been met. Most of our talented people are who who need self actualization, because they’ve managed to attain the bottom four. Once these people start feeling that their self actualization needs are not being met, that they are not learning and growing, but instead are being sidelined, berated and put down because “their once fresh ideas which couldn’t be implemented then” are now just “the same old ideas which will never be implemented”, they start thinking of greener pastures where these needs might be fulfilled.

And the funny thing is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

What is an organization supposed to in such a situation? In consulting terms, it depends!

It depends on what kind of business you are running, and where you are in that particular business maturity. Allow me to explain.

For product-based IT companies

If you are running or managing a product based IT company, then there are two distinct phases of work which is being performed. The first is when you are building a product, whether it be in startup mode or in an established mode. The second is when you have achieved critical mass of customers and now have to support the product.

When building a product, you need innovation, speed and a general desire to simultaneously build the best of breed product and something customers will want to pay money for. Here, you need talent! you need people who will break with the traditional mold, think outside the box and deliver. Here is where you need the top people you can afford to set the stage for the next part.

When hiring during this time, you will get both kinds of people to work for you. Some will be truly talented, looking to build, create and conquer while others will be looking to entrench themselves so that they can ride along the success wave the product will generate. After the product has been built, is stable and things are starting to look rosy, the talented people will start feeling restless. Your product no longer needs drastic new ideas, but instead needs to implement the little things customers want to make their lives easier. Talented people are not suited for this kind of jobs, and will slowly the resentment will start. They will pitch new ideas, bold new areas where the application can be made even more cutting edge, infact, will reside on the bleeding edge of innovation but will be shot down because now you have a customer base who is maybe not looking for the next best thing, or management with a very low appetite for risk. Slowly but surely, unless the need for self actualization is actually fulfilled within the organization, these people will start to leave.

This is where the second kind of people take over. They are the ones who have been with the product, will have the required product knowledge and will have made themselves invaluable to the company. They will be called upon to fix bugs, to introduce small changes and updates and generally keep the application alive. Unfortunately, these kind of people will almost never do anything to disturb the status quo (since their jobs are on the line), and will make sure the application does not change much. This will, inevitably, result in your product loosing its cutting edge quality and will die a slow but sure death.

For project-based IT organizations

If you’ve read the arguments above, you have by now understood that since new projects keep coming up, you would need a pool of top talented people to ensure that they are done on time. By this argument, a project based organization would be a boon for any top talent and their need for self actualization would be met each and every day.

However, this is not entirely the case always. When a project based organizations assume a certain degree of specialization (e.g. web based projects only, or finance related projects only), certain patterns begin to emerge in the kind of work being performed. While each client is different and each problem they present are different, the core logic and work behind the projects they ask for is similar. The self-actualization portion of work begins diminishing with each successive project leaving talented people wondering… why is it that I’m doing the same work again and again?

And then they start looking else where… while the mediocre people once again rule the roost because they now possess enough domain knowledge to get the mundane tasks done, while at the same time not put too much stress on management since they do not want to rock the boat. At this point if an organization really does sign a truly innovative product, it will be left scrambling for talent because of most of them will have already left.

And lastly, if a project-based organization keeps on taking on new and different projects, in short, anything they can get their hands onto… then they don’t generate enough credibility to sustain and eventually close up (Case-in-point: Cressoft).

So what now?

We’ve talked about how talented people have a constant need for self actualization, how all organizations especially larger ones cannot sustain this need for long and how talented people will leave an organization… you have to ask yourself.

Will you encourage IT turnover? or discourage it?

My view, encourage it with certain systems in place! The sooner you accept the truth that you cannot keep an employee around forever, and no matter what you do, they will leave someday… you will begin to realize the benefits of having knowledge and process systems in place. Tell your employees on the very first day (as alex suggests):

“We know that you’re not going to retire here; in fact, after two to three years, we know you’ll be ready to move on to a different job. But before that happens, we want to make sure that you feel that you’ve done an excellent job here and are leaving with some solid experience under your belt. Of course, there are a handful of architect and management positions available, but you’ll really need to demonstrate commitment before even being considered for those. Obviously, that path isn’t for everyone.”

Make them do their jobs keeping in mind that one day, their successors will have to be doing it. Just as they would expect their predecessors in the next job to be doing it for them. Keep records, keep a trail and keep knowledge easily accessible and understandable. Do not encourage an environment when knowledge and skills are hoarded by a select few, while others are being dictated around. Once a person moves either up or out (depending on their preference) ensure the spot is easily fillable by those below. Pretty soon, you’ll setup a stream of top talent available at any point in an organizations life, while at the same time rooting out any mediocre or less-than-average performers from the pool, ensuring that you and your organization keeps growing by leaps and bounds even though people keep on changing.

Footnote: Surprisingly, this is the system followed in our armed services as well. And say what you will, they still manage to keep a large number of separate and distinct organizations within each service not only running smoothly, but also updating and enhancing constantly. The efficiency and effectiveness of each unit within the armed services is essentially the same or improving, even though the people running and working them keep changing after every two to three years. Love em or hate em, the concept works! and it will in your organization as well!

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  • Mansoor, how can we ever thank you for such a nice, concise and effective piece.

    Being gone through the whole process; an employee, an employer, a consultant / recruiter – I can sure relate to all the points mentioned above. Some posts ago, I mentioned that we, in IT and generally all industries in Pakistan we are facing a Mid-management crises. I couldn’t have a better example than the one encountered yesterday while meeting a client and understanding their requirements for a sales role. The client said “We won’t be needing such & such sort of people as I don’t have true confidence on my delivery team”.

    I agree every company cannot be offering opportunities and atmosphere like google (hardly even in US anyone comes near that) but their are small things which make subtle differences and most of them are on Human plane.

    Unfortunately, HR is mostly considered recruiting / hiring, missing out most of the important aspects like compensation, performance analysis, training and development. Until, companies large and small start using true, unbiased HR practices, the balance between recruitment and retention might not be easily solvable.

  • Hey, Jitendra from SezWho here…Check out SezWho…It provides a number of community features on your sites and the community stays on your site only….Also we support syncing of all your existing comments and it works with your existing look and feel (nice looking site BTW)…

    Let me know if you have any issues/questions etc.

    Thanks, Jitendra

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