Developing Talent Through Mundane Assignments

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post offered the idea of developing your talent by having them work on your most boring processes. The thinking behind this proposition is that these mundane processes never get much scrutiny because they are boring, and that there are significant efficiencies to be gained by improving them. While the ideas are intriguing and provocative, the author stops short of telling leaders how to make these assignments. After you read the original post, read the ideas below for implementing the proposition:

  • Pay attention to change management. If the assignment is to work on a truly boring task, realize that there are incumbents who have been working that task for some time and have established (if inefficient) ways of doing their work. Having a hot-shot come in to tell them they are inefficient and redesign their process for them may come across as insulting. Help your high potential recognize that change management skills will be needed to engage those performing the process so that they feel ownership of the new process and are willing to do it the new way once the high potential has moved on.
  • Design for “mere mortals”. Another potential flaw of having your best and brightest tackle the mundane challenges is that they may design solutions only they can implement. Steve Jobs built Apple around the idea of simplifying technology “for the rest of us”. Make sure the solutions designed are both elegant and simple. The result will both be an elevating development experience for the high potential and a redesigned process that truly realizes efficiency for the organization.
  • Articulate resource constraints. Many high potentials live in worlds of plenty. Organizations expend significant capital investing in their development. When working the “boring” processes, they may approach the challenge with the expectation that they will have access to large resource pools to throw at the problem. They may come up with solutions that call for redesign of software platforms or investments in expensive equipment or technology. While you want them improving these processes, the capital investment should still be strategic; don’t go broke fixing your mundane processes and leave your strategic priorities starving.
  • Chart a path back. When doling out the “stultifying” work, make sure the high potential sees a path back to the more cutting edge work that is more intrinsically motivating. It would be easy to misinterpret these assignments as dead ends, leading to exit behaviors as they start to chart their own course out of the organization. Be mindful of the message the assignment is sending, and clearly communicate expectations for the work and for the next steps after the work is complete.

These guidelines are meant to supplement the advice in the original blog post. The idea of making these sorts of development assignments for your future leaders is intriguing and may generate gains for both the organization and the individuals involved.