Agile Talent: An Interview with Jon Younger

May 31, 2016 Leah Hoffmann

agile talent - jon younger

Traditionally, companies brought in outside help only when necessary. Now, as Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood write in their new book, Agile Talent, many are taking a more strategic approach, using external resources to establish, augment, and extend core capabilities.

Here, Jon Younger talks about the implications of the shift—and what companies can do to make the most of it.

What is agile talent?

We see agile talent as a third wave of outsourced work.

Wave one was, of course, consulting. For quite some time, starting with James O. McKinsey in 1926, we’ve seen the growth of the consulting industry. This year, management consulting in the U.S. alone will generate more than $150 billion dollars. But management consulting is just a slice now of the range of external expertise that industry and government depends on. Example: Munich Re depends on its partnership with meteorologists to conduct a thorough risk assessment; what’s the schedule and waste factor impact of bad weather for a ship carrying fruit and vegetables.

A second wave was the wave of outsourcing and contracting out. Apple is a master of this wave; almost 90% of its workforce does not receive an Apple paycheck. But management consulting is only a subset of expert advice and guidance in industry. And, the work contracted out and managed through procurement is non-strategic. That’s not to say unimportant, but it doesn’t directly move the needle. Hence the third wave, the wave of agile talent which is strategic and where the work is broader than traditional consultancy and does move the performance needle.

Agile talent do strategic work that’s broader than traditional consulting and moves the performance needle.

One example I love from a New York Times story about the UN’s response to the recent Ebola crisis. It was only when the staff on the ground understood the cultural challenges impeding the containment of Ebola that they were able to get control of it. Doing so depended on the UN agency contracting with an Africa-expert cultural anthropologist for the essential expertise.

How can companies evaluate what skills/expertise they should own vs. what they can get from externals?

We encourage organizations to convert their strategic business plans into a comprehensive strategic workforce plan. That entails clarifying the skills and experiences that are needed to actually execute the strategy.

Once this is done, an internal inventory of skills is essential: where do we need critical strategic help, what specific skills, expertise, and other qualities are essential. Third, if we do not have these skills internally, or if they are deployed elsewhere, how is that help is best obtained? Should it be a permanent hire or not? Does the time frame and urgency allow it? Is the expertise available externally? What must we do to attract the level of talent needed at the cost we are prepared to pay—hence agile talent solutions.

Take an inventory of your internal skills: where do we need critical strategic help, what specific skills and expertise are essential to success?

In Agile Talent, we give readers a detailed framework, specific steps, and even sequenced screens for decision-making.

What are some of the most interesting ways you’ve seen agile talent deployed?

Great question. This is a time of tremendous challenge for so many organizations. Disruptive technology is reinventing entire industries. Competition speeding up. The democratization of education and rapid growth of expertise in the developing world. So much is happening, and within that context we see more and more ways that agile talent is being invented.

I’m particularly excited about the growth of the agile talent staffing industry. Your firm, BTG, is an early, successful and important example of the new category that is being created. It’s not exactly consultancy, it’s not exactly recruiting, it’s not exactly a talent agency. It’s a new channel, and it’s a channel that has truly enabled the growth of agile talent on a world-wide basis.

Discoverability is a key driver of agile talent growth.

As a recent study by Dan Schawbel commented, a key driver of agile talent growth is the discoverability of talent. That is the huge contribution that organizations like BTG have made … creating opportunity for thousands of people who might not had it otherwise. A small example: through an agile talent platform, a colleague of mine was contacted to assist with a merger of an Israeli high tech company, and an American company. Her skills and experience were perfect for the assignment, but she wouldn’t have been on the radar of the high tech company without the web and the agile talent platform.

The use of agile talent is increasing, but misconceptions abound. What are some of the most pernicious ones?

You are right, we do see agile talent becoming more evident and important at the top levels of the organization. And as it increases in importance, there are definitely some myths that get in the way and ought to be left behind. There are three that I’d like to mention.

Myth one is that agile talent is just a new term for consulting. We define agile talent as external experts brought into organizations to perform strategically important work. It’s much broader than the traditional technical or management consultant. When Shell or BP convenes an external review of its R&D, that’s agile talent. When P&G engages with thought leaders in its innovation center, that’s agile talent. When Intel contracts with human factors specialists, or Apple augments its design team with externals, that’s agile talent. Your CEO, Jody, wrote a wonderful article in HBR some years ago titled “The Rise of the Supertemp.” The article was prescient; it’s still insightful and relevant but beyond the “temp” aspect. Many agile talents play ongoing roles within organizations though not full-time or permanent. In my own case, I was the half-time SVP and Chief Learning and Talent Officer for one of the largest banks in the U.S. for several years, and I’m still on retainer as an advisor at a couple of consultancies. That’s agile talent in action too.

Second is the myth that organizations can treat agile talents as vendors and set the ground rules unilaterally. As organizations depend on agile talent, they’re learning that they need to really treat them as partners, not “vendors.” Organizations can’t be arrogant or casual and assume they’ll continue to attract the best expertise from the outside. A simple example: paying people on time. But it’s also getting more interesting. For example, some top tech agile talents are asking for points based on their contribution; others in some industries are looking for a percentage of sales for products they’ve helped to design or build. And, the best are getting these deals and other perks. It’s a new ballgame. The talent has more of the power.

The third executive myth is that if we bring in the best agile talent, they’ll make it work. External talent is necessary for success but not sufficient. Organizations are recognizing that it isn’t enough to hire top agile talent. They also need to make sure that project strategy is sound. That there is clear sponsorship from the top. That the team is strong. That the systems are in place. That the tools and essential resources are available to get the job done. That an environment of teamwork and collaboration is reinforced. And, that the management has the skills and experience to bring it all together. Great external talent can do great things if the fundamentals are in place. But, to paraphrase the great Baseball coach Casey Stengel, make sure the coach doesn’t trip the players on their way out of the dugout.

Before starting an important project with agile talent, do a pre-flight check. Take a good look at how prepared your organization is to do the quality of work you need and how ready you are to take off successfully.

One very specific suggestion: the pre-action review. Before starting an important project or hiring the agile talents that are deemed critical for the success of the project, do a check. Just as pilots walk around the plane before take off to inspect its flight worthiness, leaders should take a good look at how prepared they and their organization is to do the quality of work they need and how ready they are to take off successfully. We know the value of the after action review. Time to think about the prequel!

What are some of your top tips for attracting, managing, and getting the best results from external resources?

Thanks for asking this. As in all things, means and ends need to be aligned or you won’t achieve the results you’re after. Our research points out the importance of five alignment drivers, five organizational drivers of success in attracting, retaining, and productively utilizing agile talent:

  • Strategic alignment. What are the goals of the work? How realistic is the plan? What is required for success organizationally e.g., timing, resources, funding, executive sponsorship? What agile talent skills and experience will be crucial in achieving the result? How well does the selection process attract agile talents with the right level of expertise and experience? How engaged is the agile talent in helping to plan the work and anticipate potential problems?
  • Performance alignment. How explicit is the performance contract? Are clear performance milestones in place? What are the specific performance measures? How frequently is performance reviewed? How explicit, frequent and helpful is the feedback? What are the consequences of mediocre or poor performance? Consequences of superior performance? How welcome and sought is feedback from the agile talent on ways to improve project performance?
  • Relationship alignment. Is the agile talent treated with dignity and respect? What is the quality of orientation and on-boarding? Does the organization encourage internal staff to cooperate with agile talent? Is he or she kept informed of key issues and events that impact the work and achievement of milestones? Is he or she engaged and treated as part of the team? When performance or interpersonal problems occur within the project team or between agile talents and others, how promptly and effectively are these issues addressed and resolved?
  • Managerial alignment. How effective are managers in dealing with agile talents? Do agile talents feel fairly heard and supported when problems arise? How well do managers establish and reinforce an environment of cooperation and collaboration between internal staff and agile talents? How frequently and effectively do managers provide agile talents with the feedback they need to deliver the performance expected of them?
  • Administrative alignment. How well informed are agile talents about essential administrative issues? Are policies and procedures easy to navigate or difficult and confusing? Are agile talents paid promptly? When and if the project scope changes, does the organization acknowledge and recontract fairly?


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About the Author

Leah Hoffmann

Leah Hoffmann is a former journalist who has worked for and The Economist. She is passionate about clear thinking, sharp writing, and strong points of view.

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