Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

sam-folk-williams's picture

What problem are we trying to solve? Let's talk about purpose.

I find that often managers are focused on results or progress on tangible (and tactical) deliverables. One thing that if often forgotten is to have conversations with every individual (and team) about exactly how the individual or team is helping to achieve the company's strategy. Do you know what your company is trying to achieve? Do you understand the company's strategy and how your department, and your team, and how you specifically are helping to guide the ship? Do you know what your purpose is?


Many people would answer "no" to these questions. If people don't understand what the destination is of the car they are driving, how do we expect them to get there? Often company goals sound too high level or abstract to make sense of.



I like to address this problem by asking a simple question: What problem are we trying to solve? I'm a firm believer that your work should be contributing to something - not just being done for the sake of it. Asking what problem you are trying to solve is a great way to build an understanding of purpose, and then to connect that purpose to the team goals, the department goals, and the corporate strategy. i.e. how does this problem we’re solving help achieve the team goals? How do the team goals help achieve the department goals? How to the department goals fulfil the corporate strategy?


So, what’s the hack? For managers, set up a weekly 1:1 with each person who reports to you, and set up a weekly meeting for all your direct reports. Use the 1:1 meetings to get a sense for what projects each person is working on, and as you go, ask them literally “What problem are you trying to solve with this?”. Even if somebody is doing the right thing for the right reasons, they may not be making the connection with the bigger picture. This is a great opportunity to connect the dots. In some cases, you may find that there is no problem being solved, which is a great opportunity to have someone illustrate that for themselves. The weekly team meetings provide a forum to continually remind and instill the importance of working with purpose in a tangible and continual manner. Let the team drive the car, and interject with questions that guide people toward the destination.

HR process being hacked:Talent Deployment

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andy-lippok's picture

Classic systems thinking is all about first asking the question "what problem are we trying to solve here?" The question then prompts immediate activity, not to start a project, but simply to what Deming always instructed - go get knowledge. That's why the Vanguard Systems Thinking Method commences with CHECK (i.e. go get knowledge) then proceed to PLAN (when you know the problem then plan to do something), and finally DO.
In my view HR and people practitioners should start to become the change it and they want the organisation to be, and I reckon the key area would be around the systems thinking as espoused and demonstrated both academically and eminently practically by Deming, John Seddon in Vanguard, Senge, Ackoff, Scholtes, and countless others.

All change beings at the thinking level and not the doing level, yet the result of the change in thinking then delivers change at the doing level. Great intentions, motivation and competencies underpinned by the wrong thinking changes little.

Managers need to recognise the organisation as a system, it’s their job to remove the obstacles within the organisation. They also need to understand human motivation (Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, etc.). Design of the work from the outside in, and focus on what is the real purpose what matters to the customer. Then, analyse the demand, design measures for what matters, then when you understand the systems thinking that determines the current way of doing things, you simply get the people who do the work to re-design the work in order to achieve purpose and what really matters, and what happens is almost magical! Service improves, costs reduce, morale increases, and the culture change happens for free. At no time do we do anything to the people, we simply get the people to work on the work. That's the systems thinking at the practical and yet quite profound level that I believe HR could help to make organisations more adaptable and adept.
If you want to work more on the Systems Thinking hack, please join the team on page 2!

sam-folk-williams's picture

Hi All - for everyone on the hacking team, please shoot me an email sam.folkwilliams@gmail.com and I'll contact you all with next steps!


amanda-boonzaaier's picture

I truly believe in the principle that people perform best when they know WHY they are doing something. In the work environment we usually know WHAT we (need to) do and also HOW we (should) do it...however, we do not put in a lot of effort looking at WHY... If one feels part of something bigger/ know that your efforts make a difference it generates energy, positive "vibe"/ attitude and really uplifts performance. Clarity on purpose is in my opinion the most important ingredient to see how people achieve amazing things!

sam-folk-williams's picture

Thanks Amanda! Indeed, your comments get at the heart of this hack. Thanks for joining the hacking team! Can't wait to hear more of your ideas as we turn this into a full fledged hack.

Hi guys, 3 comments on this

1. I think that there is a second question to ask, What opportunity are you trying to maximise? - there are some people in the organisation who are out in front of the rest of the business, and in front of the customer. For these people, there isn't a problem as such (though on reflection, maybe their problem is "how do we stop the market by -passing us?").

2. I'm with Sam on the importance of 1:1 as a reflective tool. Its very hard to create that space in the normal working day. I worked with this for 9 years in my last workplace and found it a great way of removing barriers, being creative, having time to think out loud with a fellow professional and reflect on what was adding value and what I needed to stop.

When I became team leader and was using it with my own team, I found that it was a great way to get to grips with issues that individuals had: the quiet time and privacy meant that people could say things that may not be appropriate in an open plan office. I also found it an effective tool to influence overall behaviour as I could talk about patterns in a way that was not possible in the day to day, both things that needed to be maximised for the benefit of the team and things that were preventing the team from moving forward.

The process doesn't need to be bureaucratic and formalised, but it helps to come away with action points (think of leaving a GROW interaction with a list of what's next), so that the following week there is a meaningful starting point.

3. I feel that the setting up of projects and activities is separate from the weekly 1:1 process and needs to have a great deal of thought around why, why now, what and how, and is rarely a one person activity. I could talk about this for a great length of time, so I'll stop now!!

sam-folk-williams's picture

Helen - thank you for your insights! I love the idea of what opportunity are you trying to maximize. I think that is a great way of getting to the same idea but focusing on proactive vs. reactive efforts. I'll incorporate this right away to my own work!

You comments on the 1:1 are very true to my experience - thank you for sharing. You've articulated it very nicely. I do take your point on separating the activities/project discussion from the 1:1 discussion. Usually in the 1:1 I find that talking starting with "what are you working on?" is a great way to open the conversation and then stuff just flows from that. But, if we're kicking off a new project or need to have a focused discussion I'll set up a separate meeting for that.



andy-lippok's picture

If the manager is there with her team every single day where the work happens, you don't need a 1:1. The feedback happens in the work as it happens. Cut the bureaucracy of the mechanisms and simply talk with the people. Put the humanity back into the workplace.

sam-folk-williams's picture

Hi Andy,

Thanks for the feedback. I fully embrace your comment - cut the bureaucracy and bring humanity into the workplace. And I really believe we do that at Red Hat (and actually work very consciously to do so). I should explain a little more about the process for me. First, I am remote from my team - in my company many people work together from different regions of the world and different office locations. Second, I do talk to almost every team member just about every day and provide continual feedback as we go - and they provide me feedback as well. The purpose of the 1:1 is to have a time to reflect on things outside of the hectic day to day activity. Would love to hear more on your take!