Director Maynard Leigh Associates
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Reducing the Risk of Development

29th Apr 2011
Director Maynard Leigh Associates
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Approximate reading time: 2.7 minutes

One consequence of the tougher economic climate is the demand for more certainty. Where once senior HR professionals could sign off or agree sometimes extremely large development investments, now it may regularly demand the additional approval and involvement of more senior colleagues.

Senior people want assurance that a proposed investment will work. The bigger the organisation is, the greater the tendency to seek to eliminate or reduce risk. A demand for “more metrics” and “more convincing metrics” is just one changing feature of the development landscape.

Where once arcane discussions about Return on Investment were confined to the fringes of the debate about a particular development investment, now it can be observed moving more centre stage.

This shift in how important development programmes get underway is turning some HR professionals into what can be called “technical buyers”. While they have always played this role of ensuring that proposed developments meet essential corporate criteria, the job is becoming more challenging. Another consequence of the shift is the now widespread use of procurement specialists and in some cases more complex contractual arrangements.

Beyond pure skill acquisition, people development usually involves shifts in attitudes, a readiness to learn, a willingness to experiment with new ways of thinking and doing, and in many instances a cultural shift.

This kind of development always involves risks. In the search for improving performance at work you can seldom avoid uncertainty. People are not machines and no matter how carefully we design and plan development programmes, invariably there are unforeseen and sometimes undesirable consequences.

With a wide range of possible development initiatives, from experiential learning through to executive coaching, the aim of reducing risk can be tricky and confusing. For example, “How do I know that what you are proposing will work?” is an understandable question posed to external developers from both technical buyers and their senior colleagues.

Attitude shifts for instance, stem from a person's mind-set, belief system, emotional maturity, self-confidence, and experience. While altering these is possible it is a considerable development challenge. It also offers some of the most rewarding changes in which an organisation can invest.  

This puts a considerable premium on development that is grounded in insight, emotional intelligence and experiential learning. Not only do these not come cheap, they take time to work and usually have to be underpinned with systematic follow through with all the attendant costs of time commitments.

Leadership development is another area of people development where the demand for risk reduction may have only limited success. Learning to lead is an art, not a science and though there are many ways to strengthen the chances of success, not every development investment will prove immediately successful.

Finally, the track record of developers may count for far more than in the past. Where once quite risky development programmes were tried, based on not much more than a wing and a prayer, now developers may face demands for more solid evidence that these risks are worth taking.

The least desirable aspect of this trend can be a reduced willingness to try new approaches or ones that, for iinstance, take learners into unfamiliar territory. Some more imaginative experiential development programmes may occur in a professional theatre. Yet despite the strangeness and apparent riskiness, the learning impact and shift in attitudes can be impressive and highly cost effective.

The best developers welcome the debate around risk and reduced uncertainty. They know it leads ultimately to better programmes that deliver important value- based changes. However, it also means an ability to manage expectations, helping those who make development investment decisions understand the nature of risk reduction and its consequences.


1)    Set manageable objectives

2)    Use small steps, testing as you go

3)    Clarify how you will judge success and failure

4)    Demand reasonable metrics

5)    Ensure developers have a convincing track record

6)    Assume that what is good for people is good for the organisation

7)    Beyond simple skills training, the need is to foster learning and changing attitudes



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