Monthly Archives: July 2012

Terminological inexactitude No.2 – Human Resources

An occasional series on phrases we use that imply the opposite of what we intend

What do we have working for us in businesses? Oh, yes, people. Living, breathing, creative, resourceful, unpredictable, emotional, irrational, wonderful people.

They used to be looked after by ‘Personnel’. Ok, that’s a little UNpersonal and it had a bit of a bad press but at least you knew what it was about – persons, right? So what idiot decided to change it to ‘Human Resources’?

People are not equivalent to Capital, Land, Plant and other resources a business uses. They are not predictable or measurable. They are not easily bought and sold. They are not easily interchangable. They are not de-humanised units of production (or, at least, they shouldn’t be seen as such).

“People are our most important asset” is a mantra repeated by the majority of businesses. There it is again – the ASSET word. Well, they are looked after by “Human Resources”, so why wouldn’t you speak and think of them that way? And treat them the same as other asets?

This is not just pedantry. This stuff is dangerous. Measurements of employee engagement suggest that less than half of all employees are engaged, and about a third are actively thinking about leaving. Well, maybe they don’t like being seen as assets and having their human spirit degraded.

Let’s start calling “Human Resources ” the “People” function. Like “Finance”, “Marketing”, “Operations”. Then the “Director of People” would remember what they were about. And maybe the rest of the Leadership Team would remember what’s really important to their business.

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The Olympic Security shambles

The G4S Olympic Security shambles has been a huge embarrassment to the organisers of the games and to the government. It has damaged the reputation of London and Great Britain and, most spectacularly, G4S (strapline “Securing your World” – really?) and their hapless CEO, Nick Buckles. Never before did a man’s performance so closely mirror his hair style.

From a programme management point of view, it should never have got to such a critical stage. The execution of the plan was not being sufficiently closely scrutinised by the government and the organisers, or the myriad of committees managing the security. The lack of scrutiny is probably because so many were involved and no one body had clear responsibility. Yes, G4S were probably hiding the facts or possibly lying but sufficiently hard questions would have uncovered that.

Once the problem was unearthed, the response was quick and decisive. The troops and police were called in to fill the gap. But this, I feel, shows the real heart of the problem.

Whatever the organisational shortcomings of G4S, the real problem is the way they were treating the people they hired. Minimum pay, poor conditions and no guarantee of hours. Unsurprisingly, many decided not to turn up. Perhaps if G4S had taken less profit from the contract and treated people decently then they would not have got themselves in this mess. When did it become acceptable business practice to do otherwise?

Of course, the Army don’t have the option of turning up. They have also been badly treated in this but they will be thanked by the public for coming to the country’s rescue once again. (This is not an anti-Olympics post – I am really excited, looking forward to watching the opening ceremony and a great 2 weeks of sport!)

How do you choose to your collaborators?

Collaboration is a bit of a hot topic, and seen by many as the way forward for businesses. However, a  proper and productive long-term collaboration is the most complex and difficult relationship the two businesses are likely to have. So how do you choose your collaboration partners?

It’s entirely likely that more thought and analysis is put into choosing the photo-copier supplier. Procurement is a much simpler relationship where you have the upper hand and the parameters are well understood. But the risk/reward is much lower too. Pick the wrong photo-copier supplier and you have a minor document problem. Pick the wrong collaboration partner and you can have a potentially fatal business problem.

It’s not just simple matter of matching up resources and capabilities and seeing if there’s a fit. Collaborative relationships are about creating new opportunities and new businesses that are beyond the individual capabilities of the partners. They are about making the sum greater than the equal of the parts.

In a good collaboration, you need to have fair degree in common, and a significant amount that’s different. If you’re both the same, nothing happens. If you’re completely different, everything happens (and then nothing happens ever again!).

Think about what are the important things you need to agree on to make it work. That’s probably going to be to do with values, with quality of work, with the way you see the world. It could also be about personality – both of the companies and the individuals. To they complement each other? Or is there more conflict than is useful? Can you both see this still working in 10 years time?

Like any relationship, you need to give it time. “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”, goes the old saw. It’s more important than having the right photocopier.

7 Steps to Oblivion

Have you heard about the magic of the number seven?It is said that prices that end with a seven are more attractive than those that don’t. £197 sells more than £195.

It’s also why you see lots of blogs that are about “7 steps to success” or whatever outcome they are promoting. Apparently, they get more readers if there are seven steps, rather than 5 or 9, for example.

It’s complete illusion, of course. There aren’t 7 steps to a successful outcome. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be learnt from these types of blog. It’s just that blindly following them won’t get you where they promise .

The promise of a ready-made solution for you to follow is very alluring but the fact is you can’t walk in someone else’s steps. You have to make your own tracks. What works for them isn’t necessarily what will work for you (it may even be disastrous for you). You have to take it in and assimilate it into your way of thinking. You have to adapt it to your view of the world, match it to your preferences and priorities. And you have to do the hard yards to make it work.

So, enjoy the blogs on 7 steps for what they are. Some ideas, some insights, food for thought. You know they can’t be true because there are only 3 steps to heaven. (Wah, Wah, Ooooooh!)

Are you suffering from innovation constipation?

Do you take ages to get new products out?

Are you waiting to fix a few more bugs in the software? Add the extra killer feature that you thought of last week?

Are you polishing the product so it’s just as shiny as your current stuff?

Have you created mammoth processes so you won’t make any of the mistakes you made before? That stop you from making any new mistakes? Or, in fact, doing anything at all?

Does half the population of your town have to sign off on it before you let it go?

Are you actually scared to release it in case your customers don’t like it?

You’ve got innovation constipation.

This can afflict all businesses, from large corporates down to single person, kitchen table enterprises.

They start off well, emboldened by what Eric Reiss calls ‘the audacity of zero’, but then all these questions and doubts and processes creep in until the whole innovation process is sclerotic and barely moving. That’s when the warning lights should be flashing because the death of the business could be just around the corner.

So what’s your diagnosis? Are you ready to take the cure?

Am I finished yet?

Seth Godin spoke about the never-ending nature of work in his recent blog “Dancing on the edge of finished”. There is no end of the day, no bottom of the in-tray, it’s all going on all the time. You can always be doing something, always be doing more.

This is a big temptation when it’s your own business. Or when you are desperate to succeed in a new role. When do you stop? How do you tell when you’ve done enough? What if you miss something?

This can be source of great worry and stress. Or it can be a great release.

If everything is going on all the time, you are guaranteed to miss something because you can’t be there all the time. So why worry about it?

If ‘the office is always open’, so to speak, it doesn’t matter when you are ‘in’. You can design your day to suit you (as long as you don’t cheat yourself on the effort you put in).

You get to decide what ‘done’ is, when ‘finished’ means ‘finished’. That’s a great freedom. You just have to have the courage to exercise it and take responsibility for yourself.

It’s all an experiment

Eric Reis, who wrote the excellent book “The Lean Startup”, defines a start-up as

“… a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”.

He further reduces this down to “Startup = Experiment”. It’s true. No-one knows what’s going to work in a new market, or with a new product or technology. You start out with some hypotheses (posh word for ‘guesses’) and try to find out if they are true. That’s an experiment.

I think this is hugely freeing. It takes away the pressure to succeed at every turn, to show progress in some linear way. Experiments don’t work like that. They often fail. They prove or disprove incremental bits of knowledge. The value is in the experiment itself, and the learning that you derive from it.

If you are creating new products or services that are more than simple ‘me-too’ offerings, this applies to you. You are experimenting. If you’re not, and you want to survive, I recommend you start.