Succession planning is easy so just do it

I am known for my simple, “dodgy, ” approaches to workshops and problem solving. So it may not surprise you that I have prepared some dodgy analysis in the following graph.

Analysis of the value of solving the problem

This graph shows how you can prioritise the time and energy of your team.

Some activities (building trust) are valuable while others (random meetings) are not. Some things are easy (going for a coffee) and others are a lot of effort (Building mastery in core skills or truly satisfying customers). Using this dodgy analysis approach I have listed succession planning as both highly valuable and relatively easy. So, based on my detailed analysis, this is a no-brainer. Expend a little energy here and then reap great benefits.

Is it worth doing some planning for this?

But how do you plan succession?

Now that I have provided a convincing argument of the importance of succession planning, I will move onto some advice about how to do it.

As a starting point it is probably a good idea to plan some succession. Surprisingly though, this is the first stumbling block and it is where people come unstuck.

Based on this analysis, it is valuable to focus on defining the goal and also implementing the plan. Implementation is hard so we should focus most of our energy there, but defining the goal is easier so we should start there.

Planning means working out how to do something, so we are clear on that. But what is “succession?”

Decide what you mean by succession planning

“Succession”used to mean the process of getting a new title or the order in which people inherit the throne when better claimants are killed off. But unless you are in a battle to seize the throne, then it is more practical to think of it in one of two ways:

  1. Identifying roles that will matter in your organisation
    1. Identifying critical roles (scrum master, product owner, senior BA, catering automation engineer or whatever);
    2. Identifying people who can perform those roles now, or might want to grow into them;
    3. Planning how to build a bench of people ready for the roles before you need them.
  2. Identify critical skills and capabilities
    1. Some teams rely on critical skills or capabilities rather than roles (automating testing, analysing data, finding good cafes or whatever). So rather than identify roles, we identify emerging capability needs
    2. Identifying people who have that capability now (our depth in the capability) and those who might learn and grow the capability we need before we need it
    3. Planning how to build a bench of people ready with the capability before you need them

Succession planning for critical roles

Let’s start with creating a bench of people to fill critical roles.

When I was younger, some of my managers asked if I had a 5 year plan. They would harass me and then tell me I should be more ambitious. But they didn’t actually share what their 5 year plan was for building and maintaining the team.

The existing plan was not that great

The “plan” seemed to be that I would work really hard and then at some point a magic pixie would appear and create an opportunity.

Then, since I had been working really hard I would be really tired and too busy to seize the opportunity, which was OK because I had become single point sensitive and the team could not afford to release me for the opportunity anyway.

Then there were two options. In the first, a second pixie would appear soon afterwards and create a huge crisis, which would cause me to stumble along in a state of panic, building a new skill and then finding myself in a great new role. This resulted in most of my management roles and also some surprising career changes from business to technical and technical to people focused roles. But it seemed like a rough and messy approach.

The second option was not as rough, but was slower. In this scenario I kept working hard for a while, but started to get bored. I would hope for a visit from the disaster pixie, but this would not happen in a timely fashion.

Eventually I would start to get distracted. I would start doing unimportant work on the side to avoid the boring but important things I was meant to be doing. Then I would complain a bit and spend more time on distractions.

At this point, the “pixie of non-disaster related surprises” would generally appear in the guise of someone asking if I could backfill some position or do a short project. This inevitably led to me doing two jobs for a short time while being “seconded” to a side adventure. But then I would end up in the side adventure full time and would find myself in a whole new role. I went from pension expert to unix administrator/DBA like this and from IT manager to L&D HR person this way.

So the pixie based approach seemed to work for me but was messy and unpredictable.

Then I worked with some managers who tried a different approach.

A better plan

Here is the approach that we used in a particular management team and it has worked for me ever since, but it does require some work from the leaders of the team rather than them just saying that people should manage their own careers.

  1. Identify critical team or leadership roles that are in place today
    1. Guess what the roles will look like in one year and maybe two years
    2. Talk to the incumbent in each role and ask them to agree to what they can do to hone the skills needed in their existing role.
    3. Also get them to rate themselves as “learning the role,” “Competent” or “Potentially outgrowing the role more moving sideways in a year or two.” This is not a commitment but just an information point
  2. For the roles you think are critical, consider who could do them in an emergency
    1. Who could do this role if the current person was seconded, sick, retired or just overwhelmed?
    2. What would happen to the “emergency incumbent’s role?” This is because you will often find that the emergency people are also single point sensitive, so if they fill the emergency gap then there is another gap, or just the same people swapping chairs.
    3. Ask if there are people outside the team who could fill in. For example contractors, related teams, competitors etc. If you identify people at a competitor then you call them a “shadow succession plan” to make it sound secret and then you buy them a coffee every now and then.
    4. For the emergency people, consider how to prepare for the emergency. For example delegating some of the work to practice, or have them sit in on meetings and fill in when people are on holiday.
  3. Next, consider who could do the role in 3 – 6 months if we offered them some development
    1. Do not panic if some people might be ready for many roles. This is a great sign that you have potential in the crew
    2. Do panic if absolutely nobody could become ready for particular roles. Consider how to beef this capability up, or do a risk assessment of what would happen if you did want to bring someone up to speed quickly. Maybe just look at how people could perform some parts of the role.
    3. Delegate some work to these guys and look at what short term development opportunities would help get them ready faster. It does not matter if they are getting ready for multiple roles as we are not locking things in, merely building the muscle to be ready.
  4. Finally consider who could do each role in 6 – 24 months if we offered them some development
    1. You should have some people in the team who could grow into roles down the track. Other consider if this matters.
    2. Assuming that the role is worth having in 6 – 24 months and that you want to develop people then start looking at what specific capabilities, knowledge or experience you would want people to have. Do not worry about filling every gap immediately, just focus on chipping away
    3. Do not promise roles to people, but do highlight the connection between short term development effort and the potential flexibility it gives for future roles.

OK – you should now have a rough plan. You can now form committees and do detailed skills audits with management reports. Or you could share your thinking with people and move to some rough implementation. Real success will come from revisiting this discussion every 90 days or so and reviewing whether you are actually giving people opportunities to learn specific things and if you can see the areas for future focus.

Applying the same approach to skills and capabilities

Many teams have fluid roles, but critical skills and capabilities. In this case the approach is similar, except that you might look at both the number of people with a skill and the depth of that skill for different people.

I will have a look at skills based succession planning soon and maybe also look at some hints around implementation that go beyond hoping that pixies appear and help you. But I think there is enough here for you to give it a go if you want to.

I have even attached a template that you can use so you don’t need to spend too long on stationery selection and formatting.


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