Lucy Adams
July 27, 2022
Reading time: 8 minutes
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Why do businesses have an obsession with big being better? We tend to favour large transformation programmes when we want to change behaviour. These huge projects are always difficult and scary for everyone and encourage our chimp brains to kick in with fearful thoughts. If we want people to change willingly, we have to shrink the size of the challenge they face.

If we can find a way to make something seem small or even temporary, we’ll find it easier to persuade people to do it. This is the thinking behind the technique called the ‘Five Minute Room Rescue’ by home-organising guru Marla Cilley. When cleaning the entire house seems like such a mountainous task we decide not to bother, so she suggests setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and just tackle the worst room. When the buzzer goes, you stop. This taps into the notion that getting going is often the hardest part of change because it feels so daunting, but that anyone can accomplish something useful in five minutes and try it again the next day. Our confidence grows as we discover it’s not so difficult after all, and we want to do more of it.

We can use this in HR when we want people to change their habits. Instead of asking leaders to have ongoing conversations with their staff each day, we could suggest they have one weekly five-minute conversation with a couple of their people by their desk or over Teams, and to comment on one good thing that week. Just one five-minute conversation, and one comment — give it a go.

Instead of the standard nine box grid accompanied by endless calibration discussions, Western Union asked clusters of managers to come together for an hour a month to talk about the talent in their teams. It shrunk an industrial-scale task into a human-sized one.

This technique of bite-size being more impactful is being seen more and more in L&D too. Instead of a full day’s training of which our brains will forget 80 percent in a month – we’re seeing short videos or mini-sessions – Telefonica call them ‘learning shots’!

Or in Diversity and Inclusion where, instead of the big training programme or campaign, we’re seeing a greater focus on great conversations – like at Go Daddy where they talk about micro exclusions and micro inclusions. Leaders have conversations with their teams where they ask questions like ‘what’s the one thing I could do to help you to feel more included and valued?’ One small habit that they might change – much less intimidating than a big D&I initiative with tons of activities.

Another way of minimising a challenge is to break it down into staged tasks. The educational technique of ‘scaffolding’ takes this approach. It states that, instead of assuming teachers need to teach something sizeable such as how to do algebra in one go, they take the end point and break it down into chunks. Each chunk involves learning something new but messing up one of them won’t put the learner off doing the rest of it. For instance, if you were to try to hold line managers responsible for making pay and bonus decisions rather than it being controlled centrally in HR, this would be a terrifying prospect for most leaders because they’d assume managers would bust the salary budget in no time. However, your starting point in HR could be that instead of not implementing this change for fear of its causing problems, you could do it in stages like this:

  1. Ask the managers to carry out a theoretical exercise on how they would go about the task. Give feedback to help them.
  2. Feed in some example tricky situations and discuss how they’d respond.
  3. Let them try it with the lowest risk elements of their team, and to reflect with you afterwards on how it went.
  4. Keep doing this until you have them off their water wings and swimming independently.

This might sound time consuming, but how many hours do you spend carrying out the annual pay review at the moment? With scaffolding, you protect people from making huge mistakes and losing their confidence, creating ways for them to practise and improve.

So, why not take a look at the way you deliver HR – and swap big campaigns, initiatives or the dreaded HR transformation programmes for small, bite-sized activities that appeal to busy managers and can help build their confidence in trying something new?

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