Great HR is Messy

Lucy Adams on April 1, 2019

Like millions of others I have been bitten by the Marie Kondo bug. The diminutive tidying guru has led me to sacrifice my weekends to seemingly endless rounds of de-cluttering, sorting and folding everything I own into neatly stacked rows. Has all this effort been worth it? God, yes! My newly organised life makes me feel so much better. Eliminating the clutter and structuring my domestic world has enveloped me in a weird zen-like calm. I actually feel like I’m in control!

Of course, this is an illusion. Having a wardrobe arranged by colours or finally getting rid of those unused CDs isn’t going to protect me from the chaos that impacts our everyday lives. But the illusion that it might is so attractive. Is it any wonder that as we all struggle with increasing complexity and ambiguity the desire to tidy, clean and organise the superficial things in our lives has become a global phenomenon?

The search for the illusion of control is evident in our business practices too. Our response to the increasing levels of business volatility we face is to try and pretend that we’re more certain than we can ever realistically be. We produce our five-year strategic plans. We seek increasing levels of data. We engage in endless scenario planning and forecasting activity. Our leaders present us with graphs that show us how the numbers will increase. All to try and create an illusion of certainty that makes us feel better, but which ultimately do our organisations a disservice. Instead of building our abilities to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can pretend that we know how things will pan out because we have nice, neat models and charts.

Attempting to provide order and certainty about people has dominated our thinking in HR for decades. Our unhealthy obsession with HR ‘neatness’ has led us to produce processes and policies that equally do our organisations and our people a disservice. As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face.

Messy HR has a number of features that differentiates it from the traditional neater version;

  • It avoids ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions and prefers customised approaches based on the specific needs and preferences of its customers
  • It avoids big programmatic solutions and prefers small, incremental, organic change
  • It rarely mandates or insists upon compliance and prefers to build participation through effective marketing strategies
  • It uses smart cognitive and emotive change levers rather than believing a process can change behaviours

So, what do these messy HR solutions look like in practice? Here are three of our most popular traditional neat ones with the newer and messier versions that are being adopted.

Neat HR #1: Finding the ‘perfect’ leader

I devoted many hours as an HR Director trying to find the perfect leader. My primary vehicle for this was the ubiquitous Leadership Competency Framework which present a set of skills and behaviours which, if we are brilliant enough and get the whole set, will prove we are perfect leaders. I’ve implemented some real shockers that were almost instantly forgotten by my leadership colleagues. One spectacularly neat model I deployed had 12 competencies and 144 behavioural indicators. No leader I met could ever remember what they were and the A3 spreadsheet with them on was only ever referred to by the Head of L&D.

The concept of the perfect leader is of course, totally flawed. We’ve all got our strengths and things we’re not great at. But the Competency Framework keeps the myth of the perfect leader alive. It acts like a kind of leadership ‘bingo card’ where we try and tick all the boxes. This results in leaders focusing on the bits that are missing and attending training to develop skills in areas at which they’ll only be mediocre at best. It also perpetuates the idea that leaders need to be the ones with the greatest array of personal strengths – the biggest and best – whereas the leaders who will thrive in this disrupted world are those who can get the best from their teams rather than through individual endeavour and achievements.

By trying to articulate what leadership competence looks like, we end up focusing on how leaders will demonstrate their abilities in ways that allow little room for interpretation. Every leader is unique and will do things in their own way. We can’t say one style is necessarily superior to another. For example, “good communicator” could be delivered in a multitude of ways depending on the situation and it’s the individuals’ experience of being communicated with that matters rather than the way it’s done. I believe this focus on the definitions of what a good leader looks like, rather than the conditions, the culture and the outputs they need to build, has underpinned our lack of diversity. We end up with the leaders who are more extrovert, who seem to be very confident and charismatic rather than those who can build genuine trust, who build capability and capacity in their teams and who collaborate effectively.

The ‘Messy’ Alternative to Leadership Competency Frameworks

We’re seeing HR beginning to question the value of spending loads of money and effort assessing leaders against a set of competencies and beginning to invest more in helping leaders understand themselves. What’s unique and special about them and how are they deploying these unique qualities? What are their strengths and how could they focus on these to become even better at them? How do their behaviours impact on the team? What are their personal values and how do these align with the organisation’s. What gives them purpose and meaning? How do they respond to stress? How do they learn best? How could they be the very best version of themselves? Companies such as Google, Unilever and Sky are doing some really pioneering work in this space.

Choosing a few broad areas that are well proven to give a higher chance of success in a disrupted world is proving more effective than long lists of skills. The great HBR article from a few years ago suggested resilience, insight, curiosity, the ability to engage your team and humility. Red Bull’s brilliant Wingfinder tool to help them recruit includes similar qualities; drive, creativity, the ability to make connections and “thinking” – smart, analytical problem solving. These attributes work well in a fast-paced world and can be demonstrated in a range of contexts and personal styles.

We’re also seeing a change of focus away from trying to detail every behaviour and instead re-framing leadership models to describe what the outputs should be instead. For example, instead of defining that ‘good’ leaders meet with their teams every week, describe the desired experience of your employees, ie: they will feel included, aware of what’s going on the wider organisation, etc. This way leaders can find the method of delivering that experience in ways that suit their personality and style. Instead of insisting that leaders be ‘innovative’, focus on how you want the leader to create the conditions for greater innovation – then allow them to find ways that work for their team and their part of the business.

Neat HR #2: The Annual Talent Management Review

It’s “Talent Review” time and you are charged with identifying the top talent in your area and contributing this to a group wide analysis that will provide a neat and accurate picture of the strength and depth of talent across the company. What happens next?

Forgive me, but I’ve regurgitated the Annual Talent Review steps from an earlier blog as I didn’t feel I could describe it any better ….

  1. You can’t believe it’s come around again so fast, sigh heavily and go to the HR toolbox to take out the 9 Box Grid.
  2. Leaders are confused by the 9 box grid and ask questions like “potential for what?” and “by when?” or “How do I know if someone has potential?” and “How is performance different from potential again?”
  3. Having agreed with your suggestion “not to overthink it” (which you made when you realised you were never going to get them completely clear on the “performance/potential” criteria), the leaders then spend another age coming up with new descriptors for the 9 boxes including “Rough Diamond”, “Questionable Fit” and “Enigma”.
  4. Leaders seem to struggle to do the exercise properly, for example, trying to put most of their people in the top right-hand box, including those 6 weeks away from retirement or who won’t relocate even though there are no promotions available where they are.
  5. Leaders ask whether s/he should inform their people where they sit in the grid and worries about those s/he has identified as having “absolutely zero potential” especially when you explain that their placement in that particular box means they ought to be managed out. They then decide they are probably in another box after all.
  6. You try to answer all their questions and challenge their decisions but compromise on a few reassuring yourself that “It’s a journey – they’ll get better at it over time”.
  7. You take the information away and spend hours trying to get the names into a PowerPoint/Word/Excel document.
  8. You breathe a huge sigh of relief and send all of the completed grids off to the Group Head of Talent.
  9. Weeks later a high-level meeting happens where countless 9 box grids are reviewed by Directors who argue about the half a dozen people they may have met once or twice and calibrated grids are signed off. Immediately before this meeting you realise that several names have resigned or changed jobs and so grid should have been updated.
  10. Some months later – a vacancy! You eagerly pull out the assorted 9 box grids and remind the hiring leader of the names in the top right-hand box. None of them are chosen….

The leaders I have worked with who seemed to enjoy the Annual Talent Review were always those who got a kick from structure and process rather than the great people leaders. The latter were able to do the exercise fairly quickly but it didn’t create any real value for them as they already had a clear picture in their mind about their people and some idea about how they were going to develop, manage or reward each of them. The leaders who enjoyed the process of neatly categorising were typically the ones who did little with the results and saw the activity as being completed the moment they placed the last name on the grid. We know that great talent management is all about movement – moving up, around, in, out and yet the 9 Box Grid often fails to generate that movement and becomes more about allocation. I can see that having a snap shot of your senior teams at a point in time might be useful as a wake-up call or a reassurance but not much more and, given the inaccuracy of that snap shot, why bother to do even that?

There’s been a lot written about how it’s almost impossible to accurately assess someone’s performance, let alone their potential, but probably the most brutally honest perspective comes from Marcus Buckingham and the work he did to expose the inaccuracy of performance and potential ratings. As he says in his illuminating article for HBR“The research record reveals that neither you nor any of your peers are reliable raters of anyone. And as a result, virtually all of our people data is fatally flawed.” Scary stuff, given that these ratings, in theory at least, have a significant impact on our reward, our promotional prospects and our motivation.

It’s not unusual for talent reviews in larger organisations to take several months to complete. Not only is this time consuming for questionable results, it just doesn’t mirror the true pace of most organisations. Every Talent Review I’ve ever produced was always out of date by the time it was complete and leaders who want to move quickly to recruit or promote are justified in their irritation at the time it takes to get a perfect picture.

So, we spend crazy amounts of time and effort producing a complicated (but neat!) grid that is inaccurate and doesn’t add value. Not a great use of time at best and at worst, yet another HR activity that fails to add value and damages our credibility. Finally, messier alternatives are emerging with much greater impact.

The ‘Messy’ Alternative to the Annual Talent Review

Firstly, it’s not annual! Instead we’re seeing much more fluid and dynamic talent processes and interventions that don’t have a rigid and irrelevant timetable. Approaches like Western Union’s approach where they get clusters of leaders together for an hour a month to ‘talk talent’. No documentation to fill in, no 9 box grids – just conversations about their teams. I’ve always found that most leaders like to talk about their people, they just don’t like doing the paperwork. Getting leaders to discuss talent on a regular basis helps them get better at it too.

Secondly, we’re seeing greater customisation to reflect the different needs of the talent themselves. At 3M, the HR team identified a number of different segments based on the employees’ main motivation for working at 3M. Three examples of these clusters include employees who are:

“In it for my life”—those motivated by alternative work arrangements, as in “I have a life.”

“In it to win it”—those motivated by a fast-paced, highly challenging, risk-taking environment.

“In it to experience it”—those motivated by developmental stretch assignments.

The clusters provide managers with the ability to tailor programs to various employee needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to career development.

Thirdly, talent management is much less about focusing on an elite few who have been anointed during the talent management process but instead about creating an environment where employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their own career development. Initiatives such as Nielsen’s ‘Ready to Rotate’ where employees are encouraged to flag when they believe they are ready to do something different is a great example of this change of ownership.

Finally, messier talent management is all about regular conversations between a line manager and their team, not the once a year career discussion at the annual appraisal. Numerous organisations are now embracing this less structured approach and encouraging leaders to have frequent check-ins which include discussions about career development instead.

Neat HR #3: The Annual Engagement Survey

Is there anyone out there who still thinks the annual engagement survey is a good use of time and money? Thankfully, the days of this particular HR dinosaur are numbered. We’re realising that insights about how our employees feel about things is not an annual event. We are also coming to terms with the fact that the annual overall engagement score we presented to the Board rarely had any meaning when it was aggregated to such a high level (other than the Execs ticking the staff engagement box). In HR we would often see completing the collection of divisional and team action plans as a proxy for improving engagement levels, but we are starting to wake up to what taking engagement seriously actually looks like.

The ‘Messy Alternative to the Annual Engagement Survey

We’re learning from our consumer insight colleagues that engagement feedback is something you obsess over relentlessly. As one of our clients told me recently – “we speak to 1500+ customers every day, but only once every 12 months to our people, and we realised that couldn’t be right”. We’re seeing a mash-up of feedback techniques being deployed; smiley face touch-pads, regular pulse surveys on smartphones, text messages to a sample of people every week asking, “How’s work for you at the moment?”, the companies I meet are trying new ways of ramping up their contact in the least annoying ways possible.

They’re also blending quantitative and qualitative research and doing in-depth analysis on the key moments in their employees’ working days. They’re giving line managers the tools to do things for themselves using fab apps – like CultureAmp, TINYpulse or Glint. Or they are simply cutting out surveys altogether and encouraging their people to use Glassdoor and then reviewing what the comments are saying.

In HR we’re exploring quick, real-time feedback that is provided directly to line managers to drive meaningful interventions. We’re using hackathons to not just get their views on a range of topics but involving them in co-creating the future alternatives. We’re commissioning in-depth analysis on who they are and what drives and motivates them to help us design and segment our HR products so that are relevant and meaningful and are delivered in ways that reflects the way they work. We’re offering line managers a range of techniques and tools that they can use, in ways that suit them, to get to know their people better.

Messy HR is often going to be harder sell to our Execs than the neater one. Providing proof of leadership capabilities, talent bench-strength or engagement levels makes them feel good because it offers the seductive illusion of certainty. Advocating approaches where there are no guarantees, where ‘it depends’, where it takes longer and where it’s harder to measure may meet with greater resistance but it’s honest and in the long run will deliver greater results. I believe the truly impactful HR teams are the ones who are brave enough to promote ‘messy’ in a world that craves ‘neatness’.

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