10 Insights from 50 Years of Innovation, Leadership Development, DDI History


10 Insights from 50 Years of Innovation

As DDI celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, founder William C. Byham looks back on 10 leadership insights from five decades of innovation.

Publish Date: January 23, 2020

Read Time: 9 min

Author: William C. Byham, Ph.D.

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This year, DDI marks its 50th anniversary. It’s a milestone we are proud to commemorate. But, as anyone with a healthy attitude about a milestone birthday will point out, the number of years DDI has been in business is just that—a number.

I say this because, while we’re proud of all we have accomplished during the past five decades, we have much more to do, and we have a great deal more in store for the organizations we work with.

DDI was started with a vision that I and the late Doug Bray, the true pioneer of the development of the assessment center, had for transforming the workplace. I’m happy to say that much of our vision has come to pass, as today’s organizations are able to make more accurate hiring decisions, help people develop skills that make them better leaders, identify leadership potential and ability, and predict how individuals will perform if placed in a particular job or role.

Organizations now also see the value in integrating their people systems around a common set of competencies, improving efficiency by using the same competencies to hire, develop, promote, and manage the performance of their people.

While we are proud of our accomplishments and innovations, during the past five decades along with our innovations have come several invaluable insights about HR, people systems, and leaders. I’d like to share some of them with you here.

1. Don’t Try to Solve a Problem Before You Define It.

This sounds simple enough, yet I have often been amazed at how quickly some organizations will rush to implement a solution without first fully understanding what the problem is. For example, a company with a turnover problem may have underlying problems causing issues with retention. It could be a problem with how it hires people. Or it could be that poor managers are the reason people opt to seek opportunities elsewhere.

We now live and work in an era of an unprecedented quantity of data. Organizations need to use the data available to them to zero in on what their real challenges are and implement solutions accordingly.

2. Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior.

If you want to predict how someone will behave in a specific situation, the best indicator is how the individual behaved in similar situations in the past. This belief is the foundation of behavioral interviewing, which I invented and DDI brought to market as our Targeted Selection® behavioral interviewing system. Since we introduced Targeted Selection® in the early 1970s, it’s been used by organizations around the world to hire millions of people.

3. There’s an Easy Way to Give Feedback.

Another innovation we developed with Targeted Selection® was the concept of the STAR format; STAR standing for “situation,” “task,” “action,” and “result.” It’s a logical and easy way to structure a specific example of past behavior.

For instance, in an interview, a candidate might offer this example: “The project was behind schedule and we needed a way to focus on what was important in order to get back on track [situation/task]. To help make that happen, I created a tracking spreadsheet [action] and scheduled weekly touch-base meetings [action], in which we reviewed the spreadsheet as a team, provided updates, and surfaced and addressed issues that were blocking progress. With the spreadsheet and meetings to keep us on track, we were able to meet the project deadline two weeks ahead of schedule [result].”

Beyond the interviewing realm, the STAR format has also proven to be a useful and easy way for leaders and others to provide feedback. For example, if the leader of the individual providing the above example was to give positive feedback on how they handled this particular challenge, the leader could employ the STAR format to describe the situation or task, the specific actions the individual took, and the result of those actions. The result would be a very specific piece of feedback that would acknowledge and reinforce positive behavior and, if provided in written form, be easily captured in the individual’s performance plan.

I have not found a better, more useful way to deliver feedback. And it’s equally applicable to situations where actions did not produce positive outcomes. In these instances, its valuable to amend the STAR feedback with and additional “AR”—an “alternative result” that likely would have been realized if the individual had instead taken a different action to address the situation.

4. How we interact with each other matters a great deal.

As I reflect on DDI’s history and look ahead to what lies ahead, I’m perhaps proudest of our development of the Interaction Essentials that we impart in many of our leadership courses. The Interaction Essentials include the Key Principles that address the personal needs of those we are interacting with and Interaction Guidelines that meet practical needs during an interaction.

The Key Principles, which include maintain or enhance self-esteem, listen and respond with empathy, ask for help and encourage involvement, share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust), and provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership), are really all about ensuring a successful interaction through respect, decency, and making people feel valued and heard.

The Interaction Guidelines, meanwhile, provide a structure for the conversation and minimizes any confusion or misunderstanding about what is to happen afterward, such as action items, next steps, etc.

What I find so powerful about the Interaction Essentials is the tone they set and the positive environment they provide for people to communicate with each other. Their value really shines through when they are absent. Many DDI clients have told me what it was like in their organizations before their leaders were taught the Interaction Essentials. Often, conversations were demotivating, produced hard feelings, and contributed to a negative work culture that carried over to employee turnover, inferior products, and unhappy customers.

The takeaway from this is unmistakable: How we interact with each other matters a great deal, and we owe it to ourselves as leaders and to the people we lead and work with to take responsibility to ensure we meet both their personal and practical needs when we interact with them.

And it shouldn’t stop there. As parents, as family members, and as members of our communities and of the groups and organizations we belong to outside of work, there is great value in the Interaction Essentials.

5. Research, Validate, Measure.

Throughout our history, before launching a new product or solution, we have done research, gathered evidence, and conducted pilot sessions to show that our new offering works. We also have conducted validation studies to prove our solutions work. In fact, one of the philosophies that has contributed to DDI’s success is this: Don’t just think it’s going to work—find out!

While this scientific approach is a differentiator for DDI that sets us apart from our competitors, we don’t stop there. We also work with our clients to measure the impact of our solutions in their organizations and with their unique situations and needs—which provides even more evidence of the impact of our solutions.

6. Make it a Priority to Grow the Next Generation of Leaders.

No matter how effective its current leaders are, no organization can afford to not look ahead and prepare for its future leadership needs. We've helped many organizations do just that, leading talent review discussions, assessing leaders for potential and readiness, and helping design development programs that strengthen leadership pipelines.

We’re also proud to be a strong advocate of “growing your own” leaders, an approach that mitigates the risk of leader failure, provides the most data on which to support critical people decisions, and serves to retain valued critical leadership talent.

And, of course, we wholeheartedly believe that promoting diversity and inclusion must be a priority, including developing and promoting more women into the leadership ranks. Our research confirms there is no difference in how women and men perform in assessment centers and women respond equally well—and in some cases better—to development.

7. No Innovation is Ever Truly Finished.

We believe one of the most short-sighted things a company can do is conclude that an innovation or solution is finished, and then turn all its attention and resources to its next big idea. We’ve found, instead, that a commitment to continuous improvement—fueled by a steady stream of impact data and having a finger on the pulse of changing user needs and preferences—results in ever-improving products is the best way to realize the full potential and power of a solution.

Our Interaction Management® (IM®) leadership development system is a perfect example.

Since we introduced it more than 40 years ago, we have redesigned and updated it numerous times to keep it fresh and in tune with the needs of leaders and their organizations. And we have plans to continue updating it, incorporating new technology and learning modalities to keep IM® at the forefront of leadership development.

8. Leadership Isn’t Just About Leaders.

While organizations need great leaders, they need great leadership even more. This distinction matters because leadership isn’t just the domain of leaders. Even those who aren’t in formal leadership roles often still need and need to apply leadership skills—communicating with impact, coaching, collaborating, managing work—in order to be effective, get work done, and help the organization be successful.

9. Practice What You Preach.

Practice what you preach is great advice for any leader. But we at DDI have always felt this was also important to our entire organization. We use the solutions we sell. For example, every single DDI associate was hired after being evaluated against DDI competencies by going through a Targeted Selection® behavioral interview. Also, all our leaders go through Interaction Management® leadership development courses. Plus, we put our own leaders through assessments in order to identify their strengths and development needs. We believe in what we sell. And by using our solutions we also get more data and proof of their effectiveness.

10. It’s Never Too Late to Improve.

One thing we have seen repeatedly over the last 50 years is that it’s never too late for an individual to improve. This applies to executives who, even though they have advanced to the top ranks, still need to develop important leadership skills they may not have acquired on the way up. It also applies to experienced workers who need to become proficient with new technology. Indeed, nobody is ever truly “finished.” I’ve always viewed this as a positive, and I’ve never understood those who complain that they are “too old” to improve and evolve.

The same goes for companies, too, of course. And I am proud at how DDI continues to grow, innovate, and find new ways to meet the needs of the organizations we work with. 

William C. Byham, Ph.D., is Founder and Executive Chairman of DDI.

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