Your Organisation Has a Retention Problem, But It’s Not the One You Think It Is

In my career I’ve worked at many organisations, and most of them have thought that they have a staff retention problem. They talk about how staff stay with them for about two years and then move on. However, I think that they’re worrying unnecessarily. I think that the real retention problem is when your organisation keeps people for 10, 20 years, or perhaps all of their career.

New Experiences Required

Most people in technology will agree that spending five or six years at the same place is a long time. Most organisations choose a technology stack and stick with it for the life of a product. In the last 20 years, the average software product has had a lifecycle of six to eight years. If a developer wants to start working on a new technology, then they are most likely going to move on within those six years to find a newer software product to work on. When a technologist works within a new technology, they are expanding the way they think about problems and learning new ways to solve those problems. On the softer side, technologists who move around more are likely to have better soft skills because they are repeatedly meeting new people and learning how to interact and work with them.

I find it hard to believe that if your technologists moving on every few years, that it can be anything other than a good thing. Those people will be experienced in a range of technologies and industries, and will be used to adapting the way they work to fit new scenarios. When the technologist moves on, if both parties separate on good terms then hiring the leaver back after they’ve had those different experiences elsewhere can be a positive for everyone.

High Staff Retention?

So what about the flip side? What if you’ve created a culture where your technologists are so loyal that you retain your staff for decades, or maybe even forever? Perhaps you rotate people around teams every few years so they have to keep adapting to working on a new team. I’m willing to bet though, that it’s unlikely that you’re the kind of organisation that takes risks with the latest new and shiny technology and so will still be missing out on the breadth of technology experience. 

Of course, there is a place for those who stay in the same place for many years, even decades. I have a very good friend who has worked for his organisation for 20+ years. He not only understands the organisation’s current product, but also the last three. He knows of pitfalls that were avoided a decade ago, and trains new recruits how to avoid them. What he can never teach is why to avoid those pitfalls. It’s near impossible to convey the pain of when we experience an obscure edge cage that takes a month to solve. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are important to an organisation, but not everyone needs to be one.

Group Think

If someone is planning on spending their entire career in one organisation, their attitude is going to be very different to someone who is only thinking about the next five years at the most. There’s always conflict within any group of people, but we are far more likely to keep the explicit conflict levels low if we know our entire career depends upon the people around us. This is how group think gets a hold. Once a team is in this state, they stop challenging each other. People would rather keep the peace, than produce a higher quality of work.

When practicing agile, we look to uncover all conflicts and harness them to produce better products. It’s very difficult (though I’ve heard not impossible) to be fully transparent and honest with those around you when you’re planning to spend your career with them. The easiest illustration of this is likely to be your family. How many times have you sat quietly instead of telling someone they’re wrong?

So, What to Do?

Well, I don’t know. I think it’s great that companies are looking after their employees to the point that they want to stay forever. All organisations benefit from having a certain amount of people who want to stay forever. However, if this is nearly everyone in your organisation then you can start by asking yourself why that is, and what (if any) harm that may be doing to your organisation.

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