Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

heiko-fischer's picture


By Heiko Fischer on May 13, 2022


Distilling all influencing and contributing factors against an adaptive enterprise a single word - I would go with fear. 

Founders, Boardmembers and CEOs fear that a more adaptive, democratic, participative culture leads to a limitation or lack of their centralized control, short-and midterm loss of productivity and negative share impact. They are afraid to create an adult organisation that does not need a parental hierarchy.

Middle Managers fear lack of control and the unknown country of evolving from disciplinary masters to orchestrating enablers. They also fear that their teams are not willing or able to act like adults.

Staff prefers the illusion of safety over the reality of ambiguity and volatility, they need to learn and equip themselves to deal with. They are afraid to step to being adults in the workplace.

HR is afraid to take the lead for a new management paradigm or live it in its own HR organisation as a lighthouse culture. HR is afraid of not being able to or permitted to enabling an adult organisation.

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greg-stevenson's picture

Great topic. My interest in the role of fear in business was activated thirty years ago when I read Edward Demings work. Drive out fear whereever you find it in your organisation. Nothing much has changed in that respect in the intervening decades. Another of Demings teachings that never got much traction, even by his supposed followers, was his thoughts on remuneration. With the western world mired in the greatest amount of private debt as a ratio of GDP ever, thirty eight trillion in the US, this has a great impact on fear. It is so entrenched in the human psyche now that most don't recognize they are influenced by it. That lever of control, the ability to service and pay down debt, is now three times more powerful than it was in the 50s and 60s. The thing is, that when the stress goes on, you reach for the quickest and easiest solution. If you have your hand on that lever, you pull it.
The thing I feel worth of study, is the relationship between fear, love and trust, and building business systems designed explicitly to impact them that involve remuneration. I am particularly interested in Dan Pink's opinions from his book Drive, and the aspect of taking money off the table.

heiko-fischer's picture

For a great example on how we are getting HR wrong these days, check out this great TED talk by Frans de Waal on Moral behavior in animals:


Frans makes a wonderful case for salary transparecy you cannot help but laugh about, as you see the similarities to our workplaces. We are afraid we aren't paid justly and our energy is invested in trying to find our if we are remunerated fairly or not, instead of collaborating on the purpose of the enterprise - value contribution.

What if we made salaries transparent in the state they usually are in in any organisation? Well, watch...

The point is, HR would need to invest in creating a workplace where the transparency would be perceived as natural, not as the revelation of shocking injustices. Instead we mainly focus our energy on making sure the other monkeys don't know who gets the grape, or making sure the cages have solid, no-see through walls...

You can find Frans' entire TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html

heiko-fischer's picture

@Jimmy: I hear you. Thanks for your feedback on my post.

In helping Human Resources Management find their directors towards the Way of Resourceful Humans, we use a couple of tools. The Business Canvas, for example. We use both versions. Primarily we try to get everybody into a dialog about the one true source of identity of the enterprise: the unique value contribution. We then derive activities and put the HR teams on an agile roadmap to take down one head after another, to stay in your parlance. The usual reaction is: hey, we know what we are in for. Then the shock is big when the C-level presents their canvas to HR and you can see them scribble furiously to adapt it before they present...Assumptions make an ass out of you and me ;-) Clarity gives the employment and consumer brand unity and therefore a chance to focus all activities on it.

(Business Model Canvas: http://www.businessmodelgeneration.com/canvas)

To 'drive' the quest towards a fearless work environment, we use the second version of the canvas, the Business Model You. Here we challenge each and every participant to define their personal brand and unique value proposition. Clarity is key here. Once I can articulate my purpose in life, I can attach myself to an organisational purpose.

(Business Model You: http://businessmodelyou.com)

Thirdly, we bring HR from thinking to doing. From abstract framework to design-thinking inspired prototyping. In unison with the prior clarity we 'nudge' them to make their approach to operational excellence, service and product design an iterative journey with their customer, all the while learning to be challenging and self-confident in selling something that clearly serves the purpose but might have to overcome obstacles until shipping.

This is just some ways we try to meet the seven-headed dragon. Hope was of interest to you ;-)

heiko-fischer's picture

@Conor: Thank you for your feedback, too! I believe Fearlessness begins at the top, but is sustained in the middle. The Resourceful Humans philosophy was inspired in large parts by the HP-Way. I grew up with that company, while my father was head of HR and MD there. The original founders of HP, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard insisted that the symbiosis of an authentic commercial, professional, social and personal purpose were the key to a culture of trust. It inspires the 'what for'. HP employees summed it up in an origins video (which by now sadly, is buried so deeply in the HP vault you need to know about it to find it):

All 15 worthwhile chapters are accessible here:

You can order the HP Origins DVD here for free by the way. Very inspiring to see that modern management existed 80 years ago already and successfully so...unfortunately it got lost along the way:

Another great source for inspiration were Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler. They invented the 'ROWE' principle: Results-only-work-Environment. Their methodology aims to eradicate fear through transparency and shared results focus. You can find out more on www.gorowe.com

Recently I had the honor to speak about the way of Resourceful Humans at the re-insurance company SwissRe, during their dialog summit on cultures of human high performance. Their Chief Risk Office David Cole gave an inspiring speech on the 'WHY' and urgency of participative cultures. You can watch it online as well. Very, very insightful. And what does he identify as the major roadblock for his organisation towards more entrepreneurship?



heiko-fischer's picture

@Doug: Thank you for your feedback. I read your blog article. Very insightful, thank you for the link. I guess what we need is a repository to deal with fear. Success stories, practical steps and a peer community. Currently the vanguard organisations are too fringe to be taken serious (eg: SEMCO) and the pockets of innovative teams in larger organisation prefer to stay under the radar to avoid conflict (eg. SkunkWorks).

I feel encouraged in speaking with more and more CHROs and CEO who are fired up to try their hands on cultures of 'curiosity' as opposed to fear. They are looking for birds of a feather and frameworks that are true enablers. There are too many consultants and consultancies trying to cash in on this, but have no clue what they are doing.

Because one thing is for sure: Incompetence and impotence clearly lead to fearful behaviour and therefore less adaptive enterprise cultures.

conor-moss's picture

It is interesting that the negative connotation of fear has won out over the flip of fear i.e. trust. This is a great post which highlights that ADULTS are fearful of ambiguity and that middle managers want control, the two are the perfect breeding ground for a lack of trust. In such an environment presentism is rewarded and managing by seeing is the norm, therefore the status quo exists. An adaptable organisation recognises that jobs and projects in a knowledge economy are rarely easily defined and that people work in different ways and in different places.

Fear =Mistrust

doug-shaw's picture

Hello Heiko - I'm pleased you added this to the mix, it will strike a chord with many people I expect. I've written on fear a number of times, most recently here http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/hr/in-fear-of-fear/ drawing on a wide range of perspectives. I included some thoughts on how to deal with fear as a barrier - that's the main reason I've added the link, in case you and others want to take a look and see if any of this stuff is helpful.

Kahnemann's book 'Thinking Fast and Slow' is a helpful resource when looking at fear and other workplace challenges too, he's a smart guy.

... Another 'head' of the dragon :-) great feed !

heiko-fischer's picture

Great Quote from Daniel Kahneman: ... there is actually enormous resistance, I think, within organizations to implementing programs that would improve the rationality of their decisions.

Charlie Rose: Why?

Daniel Kahneman: Well because it creates difficulty for the leadership. The moment you have a system that is a more structured system – then that system can be used to second guess the decisions of people. And people don’t like to be second guessed. So there is a lot of interest in ways to improve rationality but ... when it comes to implementation enthusiasm wanes distinctly. ... because you are naked and this is a real problem.