As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, we are all trying to imagine what the future will bring, and it is scary. For those of us in Learning and Development (L&D), who have always faced budget cuts in tough times, it is particularly stressful. More generally, well-intentioned people everywhere are looking for action steps that help keep society healthy, connected, and productive. People are both being asked to do things they haven’t done before and in ways that are unfamiliar. Research tells us that an excellent way to help employees develop new skills is to put them into stretch opportunities, as per the proverbial industry example of the high-potential (HiPo) who is given the task of planning next year’s United Way campaign. They will be tasked with doing things they haven’t done before and in ways that are unfamiliar. These are, by definition, stretch opportunities. As L&D professionals, we need to lead because if we don’t, there could be unintended consequences.
Historically, the approach to these stretch opportunities could be thought of as a “Darwinistic” pedagogy. Put people to the test and those who adapt (learn) survive (are promoted). Indeed, Darwinism isn’t so much those who are strong survive but rather those who learn survive. In the best of times, this approach doesn’t maximize the potential of all of us; it is an effective but inefficient way to develop people. And in our current predicament, such an approach is simply untenable. We know this as a community, but the broader public doesn’t understand the importance of process.
Those of us committed to human capital more likely would use a different frame to support our colleagues collectively that can be thought of as “Donneian.” This is per the famous Englishman, John Donne, who wrote “that no man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me…because I am involved in mankind.” Donne’s argument is that we are all in it together.
What this frame means for those of us in L&D is that we need to become the scaffolding to help maximize the learning for all these people put into de facto stretch opportunities because of the pandemic. This will be hugely taxing to us because as our friend, Michael Horn, has written, dealing with disruption is not for the faint of heart, but, as he has argued, it can be managed through thinking—innovation is a reaction to disruption with a purpose.
What can we do to scaffold these stretch opportunities, particularly when it is unclear what the future brings? First, research suggests that providing tools to help our de facto “HiPos” understand what they will be tasked to do can be helpful. Be explicit about the expectations and skills needed because the people performing these tasks might not be familiar with them. Second, create systems of feedback-rich loops so employees can make meaning of these stretch experiences on the fly. Third, try to match stretch opportunities with the skills employees had identified wanting to learn before the COVID-19 crisis, to set them up for success in the longer term. Putting these actions in place will help organizations both cope with this unprecedented present and prepare for the world we’ll emerge into when it’s over.
The pandemic will throw a lot of folks into the deep end of the pool hoping that they figure things out. Our role will be to make sure they learn to swim.
Doug Lynch is faculty at USC and Entangled Senior Advisor. He created the PennCLO Doctoral Program.