Sunday, February 13, 2011

Asking the Right Questions About Talent


I follow Scott Anthony, a Managing Director at Innosight Ventures, a venture capital and equity firm. Scott is a consistent contributor to the Harvard Business Review blogs focused on innovation and recently discussed his engagement with a company. The gist of the blog post "The Power of the Right Question" was just that reframing or asking a different question can lead to breakthrough innovation. He realizes though that it is not easy...

"Coming up with the right question isn't easy. There may be an "a ha" moment in the shower, but many times the right question comes from conducting substantial market research, combing analogous industries for inspiration, holding structured discussions with experts, and having thoughtful discussions about a company's real strategic constraints and objectives. Sometimes these efforts feel frustratingly disconnected with the charge of creating an innovative growth business, but the right framing can make the right answer self evident."

The same perspective that Scott discusses is extremely applicable to our work as Human Capital Management (HCM) leaders. If we don' ask the right can we possibly know what talent we have, what the talent is doing and not doing, and what the talent should be doing...

We historically ask questions that we are able to answer because we don't want to appear that we don't know what we are doing in HCM activities. The kinds of questions that we usually ask are things like the following:

- How many people have been trained?
- How many new hires have been made?
- What is our attrition rate?

In many respects, these are good questions that deserve an answer, but do they get to some of the previous questions about talent? Yes...a loaded question that the answer is a resounding NO! We need to ask the really informative and hard questions like Dr. Bradley Hall's questions from his book "The New Human Capital Strategy."

- Are our executive teams more effective this year than last year?
- Are those in key positions outperforming their peers in competitor organizations?
- Has workforce performance improved since last year?
- Are we managing our human capital more effectively than last year?

These type of questions generate a whole different perspective on the organization and talent. These kinds of questions generate a different approach to what we do. These kinds of questions drive a different set of metrics to focus upon...not the easy metrics, but the ones that really determine the impact that our collective efforts have in our organizations.

Asking the easy questions is just that...easy. If you aren't asking the questions that get to the impact of human capital initiatives on talent and the business strategy of the organization...then we aren't doing our job. We are doing what is easy...

Nuff Said!


Twitter: JKeithDunbar
DNA of Human Capital:

The opinions or views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Defense Intelligence Agency.


  1. Absolutely nail on the head stuff, Keith. Hard questions that take hard work to find sometimes hard to stomach answers are what's needed, especially now. At the moment we have - perhaps we're nearing an end point with standards - a mania for measuring everything and anything. It's fun, and it's often rewarding, but... As someone better than I talking about HR metrics said, the Zeppelin made 620 successful flights before it exploded. Nothing in the flight metrics pointed to the disaster. But a sensible question like, is a flying gondola strapped to a giant sack of flammable gas a good idea? might have made a difference.

  2. Hi Stuart...Thanks for the kind words.

    Great points all. The pendulum does swing...


  3. Hi Keith

    Been thinking about this some more, and wondered if you would care to write a short article on the subject of the importance of asking the right questions when engaging HCM?

    I'd like to include it in the next (September edition) of the Human Capital Handbook series, the first 2 editions (Feb and June) you can download free here ( Let me know - if you're interested.