Purposeful Abandonment

Purposeful Abandonment

      “So are you going to kill this system or not?”


      This question was repeatedly posed to me upon entering a new organization as the incumbent leader of learning and development.  The “system” was an early attempt at an electronic talent management program. My initial response:  “I don’t know, let me check into it.” 

     My research in the ensuing weeks uncovered the heartache often felt with pioneering “e-work” in the talent management field.  It was ushered in with the heightened promise of paperless administration, streamlined processes and revolutionary reporting at your fingertips.  In fact, the reporting capabilities were going to be so amazing that it would cause line management to immediately drop what they were doing and gaze admiringly at the strategic insight instantaneously produced by the system!  The reality was such a disappointment and drain of scarce resources that someone should have pulled the plug years earlier.  It was clear that the department I now led was responsible for deciding the fate of this system.

      As the new guy, it was an easy call to cut the old system and transition to something more promising.  In fact, the honeymoon period for new leaders is often the time to clean up and start fresh.  Now years later, I wonder if my shop includes any programs or practices that deserve a similar fate?  

      Peter Drucker reportedly promoted a practice called “purposeful abandonment”.  The notion is that on an annual basis, an effective executive will review the major practices and programs to determine if they are still serving their original purpose.  Many of us will be approaching a new budget planning cycle soon, so I offer the notion of “purposeful abandonment” as a consideration to greater learning and development impact.


Why Drift?


     So much of what ends up as talent development driftwood starts out as good lumber.  The cause is right, the support is there, the material is promising.  But even programs that start strong can end up adrift.  Here are my favorite signs that it is time for a program or process review:


“Yes-To-Everything” is the end result of working in a function that has a hard time saying “no”.   Consider a typical corporate university: the initial offerings line up well with its mission.  Then a new request comes in from an executive so another course is created in response.  The teaching faculty lobby for sequel training to bring graduates back to cover the good material that didn’t fit into the first class.  Finally, the new business bestseller/fad is translated into a blended program to show that your organization is on the cutting edge.  Of course, you want it all and end up with an unfocused mess, vulnerable to the next round of budget cuts.


“Overdone Excellence” is the miss-application of Continuous Improvement.  For example, the new online module is well received, so let’s go back and add new features – they’ll like it even better!  The current management training program is fine as is, but the new program manager wants to leave his mark so the latest thinking on a semi-related topic is crammed into the curriculum.  The class liked the executive lunch, so we’ll add a breakfast and dinner encounter.  I think you get the picture.  In the end, our focus shifts from fulfilling the primary charter to chasing frills and peripheral features.


“My Old Friend” is a category of work that should be up for review and revision but remains stagnant because an emotional attachment keeps us from taking a harder look.   While the program isn’t quite hitting the mark anymore, the training has a historical relationship that goes beyond years.   Perhaps its a pet project where more resources have been committed than you care to tally and the end result still isn’t satisfactory.  You wait and hope for the illusionary improvement that is right around the corner.  The disappointing talent management system I faced early in my tenure was a perfect example of this. 


Under Review


     The trick to conducting a “purposeful abandonment” review is first getting in the right frame of mind.  In short, take the approach of an explorer rather than an accountant.  Put on your “new leader” hat when reviewing ways to boost the performance and value-add of your new department.  Often it’s helpful to reaffirm the core purpose and utility of a program by revisiting people you would involve in focus groups and stakeholder interviews as you would at the front-end of creating a program.


     “Swapfest” is another exercise I’ve done with groups where we brainstorm having 20% more resources to create new offerings and also dealing with 20% less resources.  (For many of us, a 20% reduction is more of an annual “lean budget” reality than a hypothetical exercise!)  Swapping out under-serving programs with new possibilities is energizing and enables us to proactively create the future of learning in our organizations.


      Sometimes drastic budget-cuts and dramatic resource shifts cause us to reexamine the worth of retaining the current suite of talent management programs.  The better practitioners don’t wait for circumstances to manage their renewal agenda and courageously examine the current worth of talent management practices and initiatives.  There is great benefit from re-validating the current worth of a system as well as eliminating a sub-performing practice as a way of freeing up time and resources for something innovative and new. 

© Kevin D. Wilde