Invest in People – with Deliberately Developmental Organizations

You may have never heard of “Deliberately Developmental Organizations.”  I hadn’t, until yesterday, but it’s an idea that’s worth understanding because it appeals to some very basic human desires and because it fits nicely the idea of “regenerative business,” which I occasionally write about on this site.

What is a “Deliberately Developmental Organization”?

Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey and Andy Fleming outline Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs) in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. These organizations prioritize personal development. They see employees as ongoing works in progress, far from perfect in the beginning, yet capable of much greatness over time. Rather than hiding mistakes and papering over imperfections, employees are encouraged to use work as a vehicle for growth. The assumption is that, over time, these highly developed individuals will add great value to the organization.

While the term “Deliberately Developmental Organizations” is a bit of a mouthful, I like that it puts people development front and center. The use of the word deliberate also emphasizes that these investments in people are a purposeful strategy for competing in the market.

Will an approach like this work for every organization? I tend to have a lot of faith in people’s ability to make a difference in even the most automated, mundane work, but I don’t know. What I do know is that this approach is really well-suited to organizations that rely on highly-skilled individuals.

Managing a Deliberately Developmental Organization

I happen to know about organizations like that – because I used to run one. I didn’t call my management approach DDO back then, of course, but learning about it now, I think it maps very closely to how I tried to run that organization.

In our organization, it was alright to make mistakes – once. We expected people to learn from their mistakes, to use them to grow. Growing personally wasn’t enough though; you needed to share what you learned with your colleagues. That link between personal and organizational development proved to very important to our ability to learn as an organization over time.

The types of development we encouraged in our organization spanned the technical, the professional and the highly personal. We were a technology consulting shop so much of our investments centered on developing technical skills in our people. We did that through trainings, conferences, supporting peer-learning networks, and by challenging staff to take on projects that were well above their existing skill sets.

The most difficult development work I did with our people was always the most personal, whether it was communication style, time management, or simply challenges with the way someone related to others at work. There were many times that I felt unprepared to skillfully navigate these personal, often psychological, waters. Luckily, my wife is a life coach, so I picked up tricks from her along the way, but there’s no question that many of our greatest organizational challenges centered on these very tough, personal issues.

A Bigger Perspective on Employee Retention

Any honest assessment of investing deeply in employees really should address the elephant in the room: which is that when you deliberately develop excellence in people, other organizations will try to recruit them away from you.

Our organization experienced a kind of Camelot era where the magic of being in this kind of culture was enough to keep a large number of very talented people on board. Over time though, as their skills and stature in the world continued to grow, other organizations began to take note and eventually began recruiting them away from us with higher levels of pay and responsibility. This is the heartbreak that comes with investing deeply in people – eventually, you will lose some of your very best people.

I’d be lying if I tried to tell you I didn’t suffer heartburn and heartache from these losses, but I eventually gained a broader perspective that helped me see them as a good thing.

What I learned to see was that, in the highly networked world, having skilled people who still care deeply about your work working in other organizations is a very powerful asset. And that’s what happens when you learn to let your best people go with your full blessing and best intentions. Over time, these people form a powerful network of collaborators for building organizational partnerships. Never underestimate the power of that in today’s world. And as hard as their departure is, it does make room for the next generation of leaders you’ve been deliberately developing below them.

The Heart of the Issue

These are some of the logical arguments for becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, but in the end, the strongest case is less about head and more about heart.

As a human being, when you know that someone really cares about you – not just your work, or the skills you possess but who you really are – when we know that, we feel a powerful sense of belonging. That kind of culture acts like a medium to makes you feel a part of something bigger than you could ever be on your own. And having that feeling makes you not only love your work, but the people at work; not because they’re perfect, but because, like you, they’re not.

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