Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Talent Management Makes The Difference

The folks at McKinsey & Company studied 4,500 researchers in 260 laboratories in academia and research-based industries, including automotive, basic materials, high tech, and pharmaceuticals. Their conclusion?

"The highest-performing labs use the best talent-management practices."
Now, your company may not be a laboratory. But labs live and breathe innovation, and every company can learn a lot about it from them. The study continues…
"Many research institutions don’t understand how well they are doing, because the people who work there wildly overestimate their own performance: in our survey, 12 percent of them suppose that their own lab is in the top 1 percent, and 70 percent think it is at least in the top 25 percent."
In other words, your company is not as innovative as you think it is. It's probably not as innovative as your competitors, and the difference can be a very big one...
"Top-quartile academic labs are five times more productive than bottom-quartile. Similar differences exist among industrial labs."
Can you even imagine what your company would be like if it were five times more productive than it is now? Surprisingly, many leaders of successful companies respond to that question with "we're just fine, thank you". They prefer to continue producing at their current level, and choose to remain unprepared for the next monumental challenge. There will be one, make no mistake about that, and it might be just around the corner.

Companies that neglect innovation and invest primarily in planning and execution are eventually going to fall behind. In contrast, the most successful companies invest in innovation as a matter of strategy. And raising one's game to that level is not that difficult...
"Of the six critical practices that influence a lab’s productivity (talent, strategies and roles, collaboration, problem solving, portfolio and project management, and alignment with the needs of the business and the market) the researchers we surveyed told us that talent is the one most in need of improvement."
Here's how the best of the best find and nurture that talent:
"Great labs … evaluate the potential of researchers by appraising their basic intellectual ability, general problem-solving skills, and enthusiasm."
Unless your company is truly among the best, it probably finds talent this other way:
"Average labs typically look mostly for specific technical proficiencies – say, the ability to use a piece of equipment or to run certain tests."
Think about that next time you write a job description for a new hire. A long and specific list of bullet points makes you less likely to hire the talent your company really needs.

Now, you may be thinking that this is all very interesting but your company isn't a laboratory. In name, it probably isn't. But ask yourself these questions:
  • Does your company ever conduct experiments?
  • Does it ever try things before making commitments?
  • Does it ever use beneficial new ideas?
If the answers are yes, your company is more of a lab than you may think. And if the answers are "no", then I have one more question – "Why not?"

excerpts are from "How The Best Labs Manage Talent", McKinsey Quarterly, May 2011 (subscription)