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Jan Hills

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Future of HR: Creating simplicity to deal with complexity


In this series I take a look at the future of HR, not through predicting the next structure HR will adopt or giving you demographic trends but through applying a greater understanding of how our brain works and what that application may mean for how HR help organisations achieve greater performance through their people.

Creating simplicity is the answer to business complexity

As managing our brain leads to greater productivity and deeper understanding I’m encouraging you to read mindfully. The questions below, plus any you may feel are relevant will help you to read the article whilst considering what the ideas mean to you. Doing this creates greater insight.

  • What is the number of your processes a manager needs to follow?
  • How simple is it to follow each process?
  • When was the last time you eliminated an HR process completely?
  • Do you have discretionary time and if so how do you decide where to focus it?

What type of complexity are we actually dealing with?

Of course business is complex and HR work is, maybe, one of the most complex areas in business.

After all we are dealing with humans who are unique, unpredictable much of the time, have a tendency to be opaque about what they want and change their minds when they get it. All of this leads to complexity.

Since the 1990s the response to this in HR has been to standardise but that’s just not working now and certainly will not work in the future. HR’s attempt to deal with complexity through standardisation has ironically lead to more complexity.

Instead of providing an employee experience that was sensitive to human needs the standardisation of processes to one-size-fits-all and attempts to provide consistency created multiple processes and made them complex.

I am sure there are some readers muttering ‘not in my company’ but step back and consider the process from a manager’s view point. How complex is it and how many processes do they have to follow?

Look at the example of Deliotte who say they spend two million people hours on people management a year.

Why do we create complexity?

Well through the lens of how our brain works there are at least two competing systems at play.

We like to have certainty and this drives us to favour what is familiar. We experience a sense of reward when we get what we expect. And if we have been deeply involved in the creation of something not only is it familiar but we develop an attachment to it.

Dan Ariely calls this the IKEA effect, based on the fact that once you have struggled with the flat pack to create your new shelving unit or drawers you become overly proud of it and attached to keeping it.

This happens with processes we have been involved in too and results in a reluctance to get rid of processes when they are no longer useful just like that chest of drawers you built back in your student days.

But the contradiction is the brain also likes novelty so the opportunity to introduce a new process or tweak the old one to add a new feature gives us a shot of dopamine that makes it hard to stop!

The three levels to reduced complexity

If we want to simplify complexity we can look at HR practice and process at four levels. The organisation, HR, the manager and the individual can all be simplified:

  • Organisation – is all about doing fewer things better. In many companies HR doesn’t have enough time to think strategically as it is doing too much and particularly too much non-value-add work like administration or policing policy adherence. I worked with one HR team who counted up the projects they were working on. There were literally hundreds. When asked to categorise them into those that directly aligned with the business strategy we got down to a handful. The others were pet projects of some senior HR leader or ‘best practice’ which HR felt should be in place but which had only limited links to the business priorities.
  • HR as a function and individual HR professionals need to decide what they say no to. We are seeing this theme emerge in a number of companies. One example is GE whose CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, is on a mission to ‘Do fewer things better’. Adopting this principle has saved GE 4.5 years on typical product development cycles.
  • Manager – One way to tackle this is to look at redundant processes (more below). HR has a tendency to add processes but never lose any. An example here is Virgin eliminating the need for holiday approval. Many approaches which simplify processes also save managers’ time and energy and increase empowerment and levels of trust and accountability. This is a theme at the moment in books like Reinventing Organisations, The Fear Free Organisation and the work of Worldblu which consults with and awards companies who create freedom at work. In their definition freedom equals less process and more trust.
  • Individual – too many HR people are ‘short order chefs’ (to use a phrase I first heard from Lynda Gratton) doing what is asked for the here and now rather than focusing on valued work. This begs the question of where and on what you should focus your discretionary time. What will be of most value? When was the last time you actually focused on what the purpose of your role actually is, where you add value rather than what you spend your time on? How many people ask that regularly? And once you do focus on value you have to consider how you get rid of low value work.

Many companies are attempting to increase simplicity at the individual level by, for example eliminating voice mail in Coca Cola (this is all very well but increases cognitive load for the caller who has to remember to call the person at another time or find some other way of contacting them) and also the use of technology like Siri to dictate messages to email or text. This approach probably reduces cognitive load.

This focus on simplicity can be usefully linked with enhancing the employee experience (see the next article in this series).

Arguably focusing on the purpose and quality of processes HR can ‘kill two birds with one stone’- simplifying and improving the employee experience at the same time. It is also possible that this would contribute to improved manger productivity as they tend to be the means by which people processes are executed.

Signature and sunset processes

One way to think about simplifying is through focusing on two types of processes.

  • Signature processes are those that really signal what is important and which are aligned with the strategy and each other.
  • Sunset processes are those that are no longer valid or no longer serve the strategy.

When it comes to sunset processes, Lynda Gratton from London Business School uses the analogy of an archaeological dig: many processes are so far down under new ‘earth’ HR have forgotten they exist but the organisation is still finding them and trying to comply. One example is PWC who took away a policy and the resulting process about flexible working and just stated it was expected and that employees are trusted to work in a way that adds value and gets their job done.

Empower people with the autonomy to drop, delegate or outsource low value work. You are likely to get an added bonus of greater levels of trust.

In my experience of working with HR many processes are written to deal with the 1% or 2% of errant employees. Policing them and checking compliance probably takes up far more time than they are worth.

One idea which we have been working with organisations to create is to have process by exception. HR sets out a few principles which are well understood and trusts employees and managers to act within them. People use their best judgement about how to operate within the principles. We are also seeing these types of approach in democratic or freedom driven organisations.

See the work of Worldblu, and the book Reinventing Organisations, mentioned above.

So if you want to simplify now:

  1. Uncover and remove sunset processes
  2. Empower people with the autonomy to drop, delegate or outsource low value work. You are likely to get an added bonus of greater levels of trust.

Reduce the amount of “noise” in the working environment by focusing on a small number of signature processes or better still a small number of principles linked to your strategy and values.

If you can also make those principles brain-savvy you have a double advantage as you make them simple for people to use and to understand.

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Jan Hills


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