Young things need nurturingI weighed 2lb 2oz when I was born, seven weeks prematurely, in nineteen-hundred-and-do-I-have-to-confess? Without incubators, I almost certainly wouldn’t be here. Other than for those who wish I wasn’t (I’m guessing most of us have been there!), a reason to be grateful for innovation. And to remember that new things – life forms, ideas, newly acquired learning – can be fragile: their chances don’t always depend solely on their own optimism. And the kind of reflection that can be randomly triggered – in my case, by starting to read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. (A full review may follow if time allows me to finish reading it.) What really caught my attention in the book was not just the story of the introduction of incubators, but also a more recent issue that made me think of parallels with HR and management struggling to maintain an engaged workforce in testing times.

The story of the modern incubator begins with Stephane Turnier, a Parisian obstetrician, who knew that temperature regulation was critical in keeping low weight and premature babies alive. Inspired by an exhibition of chicken incubators in Paris Zoo, a human equivalent was concocted and installed at Maternité de Paris, a hospital for the city’s poor women. As a result, infant mortality rates fell from 66% to 38%: having taken care to monitor and record statistics, Turnier had the proof that gave his idea wings. (Align your development idea with the organisation’s aims – keeping people alive, in this case – and document your evidence, and you have a persuasive argument: HR and L&D take note. And remember that completing surveys can help with widely beneficial breakthroughs: we ask only for your time, and you don’t even need to give generously.) Standard equipment in US hospitals after WWII, incubators contributed to a 75% decline in infant mortality rate by 1998. As Johnson points out, the benefits are hard to argue with: unlike a treatment that may prolong life for a few years, an incubator saves a whole lifetime.

Yet in some circumstances, as Johnson subsequently points out, this seemingly undeniable benefit argument is harder to argue. Modern incubators are complex and costly (technology has moved on since Turnier put hot water bottles in wooden boxes). In developing countries, where infant mortality is still a serious concern, the availability and cost of parts and the impact of power cuts and climate lead to frequent breakdowns. Building on the principle of maintaining infant body temperature, but working with rather than against prevailing conditions, Timothy Prestero evolved an incubator built from things that were on hand, reliable in that setting, could run from a car battery and are easy to fix: car parts. (And the lessons here are the learning and working environment matters and that the finest process may not be universally adaptable or applicable; approaches need to be adapted to local conditions.)

Metaphors have their limitations, but the parallels with sustaining the optimistic flicker of newly acquired learning and skills, or freshly embedded enthusiasm for participation, don’t seem completely far-fetched. Skills, attitudes and commitment, like babies, have to be kept alive: they arrive kicking and screaming with hope and energy, only to be met with a world that was nicely summarised by Orlagh Hunt in an article we recently cited in another post:

We know that people show up in a new company wanting to engage. Very few people think, ‘I’m going to do as little as humanly possible and be as destructive as I can’. They start off thinking this is a shining new opportunity, and then the job they do, the leader they get, the environment they’re in either translates that optimism into having a great time and doing a great job, or not quite so much.” 

Seeing nascent talents as something to nurture informs another metaphor. Emerging talent, or freshly hired ones, are something that can be simply walked away from: they aren’t latch-key kids, responsibility for which can be fitted in around HR’s other, more pressing priorities. Armed with the realisation that performance is achieved through people, the priority becomes to nurture – to ensure opportunities are available, that development is not just encouraged but supported. Where resources are tight, the metaphorical incubator may not be state of the art: ingenuity in crafting an approach from the equivalent of car parts – bits of process, some existing skills, some effective attitudes – will be called for, but the imperative should be to focus on the outcome: capabilities that develop, talent that matures, engagement that doesn’t wither on the vine.

I’m conscious that the analogy could be perceived as crude in more senses than one, but ‘conception’ is – comparatively speaking – the easy part of the process. Raising the outcome demands rather more of everyone involved. Like our biological offspring, employees have an important part to play – taking greater responsibility is part of their own development. But like parents, we can’t wash our hands (so to speak) at the moment of birth. As well as an incubator, you need to think of metaphorical schooling and socialisation. But the longer route is more rewarding, and it takes everyone further.

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