Disruptive HR

HR: Let's stop making the irrelevant more efficient

By Lucy Adams on Sep 15, 2017 5:24:13 PM
Lucy Adams

If you’ve been in HR a while, you’ll have your own collection of cringeworthy moments. Those memories of when you launched a new process that achieved absolutely nothing. 

Despite the hard work, the meticulous planning and the widespread stakeholder consultation, your new initiative fell completely flat and was greeted by your colleagues with indifference at best. Here are three of my least successful attempts at making a difference:

- That painful overhaul of a pay and grading system that everyone said they needed (and nobody liked)

- That brilliant ‘performance review on a page’ that everyone said would make their lives easier (but still wouldn’t complete without moaning)

- The smart online system for doing our 9 box grids that promised to take away the misery of using PowerPoint (that no-one used)

I think the main problem with all of these wastes of effort was that I was aiming to make an HR process more efficient, more accessible, or easier to complete – rather than questioning the value of the process in the first place.

Our enormous investment in enterprise wide HR systems has exacerbated this problem. Now, clearly, from an efficiency point of view, there is a benefit from having accurate people data and streamlined people administration. But I do question the value of the add-on “suites” in areas like talent, succession and performance. No doubt, I will now be deluged by systems providers telling me how wrong I am – and I’m open to being proved so. But I’ve yet to meet an HR professional who enthuses about how the massive investment in their HR system has significantly improved the quality of the leadership, the quality of the career conversation, has led to greater agility and creativity in their people and so on.

Enterprise-wide systems drive us to homogeneous, one-size-fits-all processes rather than encouraging us to customise our people experiences based on individual or segmented need. For these processes to be cost effective and measurable, they must be consistently applied with no room for deviation – and this doesn’t reflect the diversity of our businesses or our people. I’ve spoken to plenty of great HR talent who are frustrated with the lack of scope for them to tailor what they do to their department or business because they are slaves to these systems.

The slickest, most streamlined, mobile-friendly approach in the world will still not be taken up by leaders and employees if its value is dubious. For those of you who run large teams, budgets, operations, etc – you know that if there’s something that helps you serve customers better, improves your performance or makes your life easier, then you adopt it pretty quickly. If it’s a process that does none of the above, you will ignore it or comply with barely disguised resentment. Compliance with mild resentment was, sadly, a fairly typical response to most of the HR processes I’ve implemented. It’s time to stop making the irrelevant more efficient and to find new ways of delivering.

One of the most obvious examples of making the irrelevant more efficient is of course, the traditional approach to performance management. I find it fascinating to chart its course from original intention to efficient irrelevance.

1. We want our people to have a conversation with their line manager to help them do something better tomorrow than they are doing today. (Worthy original intention)

2. We don’t trust managers to do this, so let’s create a process that makes them do it at least once a year (The PM process is born)

3. We don’t trust managers to do this well, so let’s create a structure for them to follow. (Ratings are introduced)

4. People don’t seem to be reacting well to being labelled with a number. (Helpful phrases like “meets expectations” are introduced with lots of explanatory notes)

5. All our people are getting high ratings, so let’s force line managers to follow a distribution curve. (Guided distribution is launched and all hell breaks loose)

6. Our managers don’t like the system so let’s make it easy for them. (Purchase online performance management system)

7. People’s performance and motivation doesn’t seem to have changed much ….

…. Because all we’ve succeeded in doing is making a flawed process more efficient and controlled! If we look at our original intention – a short, frequent and helpful conversation – we are further away than ever. What could we have achieved if 1% of the $billions that are wasted on this process had been invested in finding new ways of having frequent check-in conversations? New ways such as peer feedback through well-facilitated peer reviews, or helpful conversation prompts for line managers or employee-led conversations, etc. Come to think of it, we wouldn’t need even 1% of those $billions.

So, the next time you’re being told that increasing the efficiency of an HR process will improve the outcome, try these steps.

- Take 3 end users and ask them how the current process adds value? How does it help them make it better for customers, improve the calibre of their teams or increase the motivation of their people? If they struggle to tell you, maybe you need to start afresh.

- Keep asking WHY. Use the Six Sigma technique of asking “Why?” five times to get to the root cause of the problem. Using this approach can help us to avoid simply fixing a process inefficiency and get to the real reason why we’re doing something. 99 times out of 100 we’re trying to change human behaviour. Streamlined processes will only get you so far.

- Apply the marketing tactic of identifying your “customer personas” – or in our case, employee personas. Creating these can help you sense check your approach and make sure your processes are designed around the real and specific needs of your employees. One perfectly formed process may not be the right answer.

- Ask yourself, “what if we had NO process for talent management/performance management/succession planning, etc?” What would that mean for our leaders and employees? What would they do in its place? Chances are the better leaders and employees would do the right things anyway. Which leaves us with the awful realisation that most of our unloved and irrelevant process is designed to compensate for the poor ones. Is that how we want to spend our time and energy? How about we focus more on what the better ones do well and look to create small behavioural nudges that replicate these actions to a wider group?

I don’t believe great HR is neat and streamlined, nor solely focused on efficiency. I believe that it is beautifully messy, reflecting the equally messy human beings we work with. I don’t believe we should celebrate the implementation of a universal, one size fits all process but instead look for creative and agile solutions, tailored to a variety of needs. Above all, we must stop ourselves from making the irrelevant more efficient.