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Is succession planning a bad idea?


Succession planning programs are often more effort than they're worth. Why do we keep doing them? I think it’s because our mental models are misleading. We see the world as more static and predictable than it really is.

The reasoning that leads us to succession planning is hard to avoid. It starts when we have hard-to-fill vacancies at a senior level. We feel that if only we had planned in advance the problem could have been avoided. We then go through an exercise of looking at our senior roles and working out who could fill them. If no one is ready to take on that role, then we create a development plan so that will have successors ready to step into the role.

That scenario is all about planning ahead and it seems to be based on bulletproof logic. It is hard to argue the opposite: that we shouldn’t plan ahead. So where is the disconnect between the seemingly logical idea of succession planning programs and the reality that succession planning is usually ineffective? It must be that our mental model of the organization is misleading in some way.

Why succession planning is usually disappointing

We can uncover the weaknesses in our mental model by reviewing what goes wrong with traditional succession planning:

  • When the vacancy occurs, the job has changed so much that the people we identified as successors are not a good fit

  • When the vacancy occurs, there has been so much reorganization that the succession plan makes no sense

  • When the vacancy occurs, the designated successors have already left the company

  • When the vacancy occurs, the designated successor is deemed “not ready yet” due to some failure in the process of either assessing their potential or developing it.

This list of failures can be explained by two false assumptions:

  • The organization is stable enough that planning based on the current jobs and employees will still be relevant when we need to promote a successor

  • That we can effectively assess potential and develop staff.

Let’s focus on the first assumption. Assume someone says to an unmarried 30-year-old, “You ought to plan where you will go on vacation in five years”. Many would say that’s crazy because that person doesn’t know if they’ll be married, doesn’t know if they’ll have kids, doesn’t know what activities will appeal to them in five years…fundamentally their future is too uncertain to make detailed planning worthwhile.

If we assume that we don’t know what kind of talent we will need in five years, and what kind of talent we will have available in five years then traditional succession planning is a fool’s errand. In terms of a mental model, it’s whether we see the organization as a relatively static entity or one that is very dynamic. If your mental model is that your organization is a dynamic ever-changing entity, then you’ll make different decisions about the value of detailed plans. If on the other hand the organization is machine-like and operating in a predictable environment, then your detailed planning processes—including succession planning—make sense.

The second issue, our ability to assess and develop potential, is one we have more control over. If we are in a stable, predictable environment but are not good at assessing and developing talent then those are capabilities we might want to work on. It must still be said that until HR is convinced that the organization can assess and develop talent then there’s no point embarking on detailed succession plans.

An alternative to detailed succession planning

For dynamic organizations in unpredictable environments, you don’t want detailed plans, you want capability and agility. In this context, capability means having a good overall talent development program such that you have a lot of talented managers with relatively flexible skill sets. If you have a good talent pool, then you will likely have good options no matter what needs arise.

Agility, the ability to move quickly and flexibly, will have a couple of components. One is that you will be ready and able to quickly find outside talent when there is no internal successor. It also suggests that you’ll be willing and able to find novel solutions such as redesigning work around the talent available and putting in place conditions where someone can learn on the job even when the role is a bit big for them.

Finally, I’d suggest that in environments where succession planning is difficult, focus your attention on the few jobs where you expect succession to be a serious problem, rather than attempting to do a succession plan for all senior jobs.

A final lesson

The final lesson for HR is to be cautious about launching programs just because they seem like a good idea on the surface. Check for evidence that something is or isn’t working and if it isn’t don’t assume there is some easy fix. Perhaps the evidence is telling you that there is a flaw in the underlying mental model, and you need to take quite a different approach.


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