What succession planning really means

Dave Griffiths wrote an article recently about his experience in attempting to provide feedback on a succession planning process, titled "When knowledge transfer plans go wrong". David wrote:

... a senior executive was leaving within 18 months and [I was asked for advice on the] transition plan ... The traditional approach within the firm was to select the successor and then probe, catalogue and facilitate the transfer of critical knowledge using the successor and HR experts ...

My feedback was that, from a KM perspective, the plan was high risk ... [instead they should] identify and involve a succession pool in the knowledge transfer process ... My advice, delivered via my ex-student was ignored, purely because it was not the way the company had traditionally approached the knowledge transfer process ...

Subsequently the chosen successor left the company for family reasons before taking up the "successor" mantle, leaving the company in a terrible bind. David poses two questions in his post:

  1. Why did they ask for advice if they weren't prepared to listen to it?
  2. Will the company change their process now that things have gone wrong?

The answer to the second question is yes, quite probably, although they may learn the wrong lesson. The reaction to a realised risk is almost always an overreaction -- it's a common and very human response to this situation, even if in all probability the next 20 times a succession planning exercise like this was run it would go off without a hitch.

My best guess about the reason the organisation ignored David's advice is that he was answering a question they weren't asking. Succession planning, by definition, says: we like the hierarchies and power arrangements in our organisation, and we want to preserve them as is.

By suggesting that the organisation engage a pool of senior personnel to share in the knowledge transfer process, David's approach would also have fundamentally altered the organisation's power structures. If the number of people to become privy to the (presumably) closely-held information used for strategic decision-making increased, it would have exposed the senior management team to additional questioning and scrutiny, and my guess is that they simply didn't want that.

As I've been saying for years, knowledge sharing and distributed problem solving increases organisational resilience. But it's not necessarily comfortable for those who hold the authority for decisions. If everyone has all the necessary information, other people might question your decisions. And they should, of course, if you are committed to getting the best results from your people! However, you need confidence in yourself and your views to lead in that kind of environment.

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David Griffiths (not verified) — Wed, 23/07/2014 - 17:12

Hi Stephen - I feel that to be a good and fair assessment of the situation - it is difficult to provide the full context in a single blog, but you have hit the nail on the head.

My original review looked at firm values, strategy and goals, which then informed the recommendations. The problem, as you rightly point out, is that there is often a critical disconnect between what an organisation's leadership says it wants to do and what the organisational community actually does, wants to do or is capable of doing.

Talking the talk is one thing. Walking the walk, well that can be a painful exercise.

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