Form Follows Function

It’s common to hear us say things that those we admire say. We adopt their ideas over time. You’ll hear me repeat what those I admire say – “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory; good theory in service to a functional outcome.” It is a core value – Form Follows Function.

Since my early teens, I have embraced the Patagonia brand, their “cleanest line” design ethos and generally consider myself a fan – a Patagoniac. Beyond the best products for doing my favorite things, the brand engaged me with their technical marketing, product differentiation and influenced my thinking as a steward and as a designer. In 2003, I started my first business offering learning and performance consulting as form by function design & consulting. I have learned to make this plain in practice over years, and continue to seek the cleanest line, pursuing the elegant, simplest functional solution.

I was recently invited to help a group of HR Business Partners and their leaders level-up some of their talent practices. It’s a profoundly committed group of people who give their lives to “missions.” When making an effort to design a process or practice, it’s helpful to borrow some thinking and skills from practical problem solving.

In problem solving, the logic that to agree on solutions, we must first agree on the problem is accepted; to identify best solutions, we must understand the functional “job to be done.” I asked the group, when you plan missions, do your missions look like this (referencing image above)? Or, in order to be successful, must you first choose the mission? The same is true of your management and talent practices.

Where organizations go wrong is that they fail to balance complexity with value as they build these processes… as each additional element is added, evaluate the trade-off between the complexity it brings to the overall process and the impact it will have on the original business objective.

Effron & Ort, One Page Talent Management, 2010, p. 4-5.

For example, you may design a succession process with the purpose of lowering risk to business continuity or you may desire to build a culture of leadership stewardship and engagement. You may need both – but they will not have the same priority and time horizon. These choices will yield different best solutions. You may be using benchmarking as the basis for what a mature process will look like. Be careful that you don’t make it your plan to effectively deliver on day 1 what your “benchmark” comparison companies achieved – in a context different than yours – through a series of efforts over years by a learning and improvement loop.

You may design a performance management process with an interest to better align resources to priorities in deploying strategy for execution. You may desire review discussions to drive meaningful development plans. You may be laying the ground work to differentiate rewards, reinforcing a performance culture. Again, in what priority order and timing.

It’s normally easiest to start with your top business objectives. In light of these, prioritizing talent practices may be clearer. ALL of the value of talent practice work will come from successful implementation and adoption by a set of stakeholders. Simplicity and clarity in the priority jobs to be done and the benefits for each stakeholder will improve your chances of achieving a productive outcome. Focus, implement, improve, repeat.

Here is a simple example of an interview I originally developed early in my career that has served me and others well in engaging groups of stakeholders to improve talent practices. Even if the solution seems obvious to you, create the pull for intervention in your organization through a small effort to engage your stakeholders to build ownership.

What are your top lessons learned from building talent practices?

How do you engage your customers to build ownership?

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