Aside

Where is our DEMING for HR?

Okay, I admit it. I give a shit about people. And so do you. Sometimes you think you really only care about outcomes like stock prices and liquidity moves, and exit strategies and all that.  

But you also know that if you engage people early, you’ll get that elusive thing of “buy-in” in such a way that your ideas become real and momentum for the next idea/product/direction starts to happen that much easier. Startups know this intuitively because their very existence is tied to this immediate goal. But bigger companies start to forget this truth very easily as part of their “scale” and “maturity” where people stuff becomes its own department.

Doesn’t it strike you as really, incredibly weird that we have HR as separate functional roles? In fact in some companies, it is its own division. Isn’t it weird when you hear leaders talk about “that people stuff” belonging to HR.  Yet everyone knows that it’s April, 2010. We know our world and economic factors means we have to innovate faster, be more agile in response to market moves, and our business model must evolve every few (5-10?) years, not in decades. We need our people to think, not just do. We need our people strategy to match and coexist with our business strategy. We know this, as we are smart people, but our HOW doesn’t match this deep understanding.


Our people aren’t engaged, we hear, so we think it’s a people problem. Like we need new people or we need to “fix” our people. Actually, it’s a systemic problem that is core to how we believe. We think of people as the thing that owns doing not the central beings that create the thing. We’re still working with models and approaches that focused on when we built things (like cars or chips) rather than when we create experiences (like search or microblogging platforms). When we think this way, we are thinking about parts rather than the whole.

And it has been striking me that this compartmentalized view of people as resources to be massaged is like the old-school understanding of Quality.  Quality was once viewed as a problem belonging to the QA department.

Then this really bright guy, Deming, came along and said something really obvious but really profound at the same time. (In fact, he got poo-poohed a bit when he first talked about cause people said “we already know that” and all he did was say “but are you doing it”). He said, he quality isn’t a department — it ‘s a way of being. And by evangelizing that and creating some systemic rules (14 points, etc) ( http://www.mftrou.com/edwards-deming.html ) made quality integral to any organization’s output, and QA was only assigned with confirming it.

I think he helped make quality a company-wide notion back in the manufacturing worker age.

Similarly, it seems like making the most of our people is not some isolated function separate from all the other company’s work. The New How makes that fairly clear and shows how to do this elusive engagement in the very way we work.  We need human engagement as integrated functions to the whole business.  What Deming did to manufacturing in an age where we made things as a country, we need done for innovation, as our creative age we exist in. We need human engagement to be a way of being inside our firms. Then one day, we’ll look back at the behavior we’re still doing today like we the days of quality as an isolated step — and we’ll laugh.

At least, I hope we do. What I fear some days is that shit is never going to change. And entrepreneurs who get it will be the form of growth and goodness and scaled up companies won’t exist anymore because they can never invent their way to the future… I could argue that this is fine but I see perfectly fine people trapped inside big institutions right now and it seems a shame to leave ‘em there while the building is kinda-on-fire and we need all the capabilities at hand to get out of the economic cycle we’re in.  

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0 Responses:

  1. evanleonard. April 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm  |  

    Well put. The comparison to Quality is a sound one I believe. Today’s big organizations grew up in the age of mechanization, and their view of people as replaceable parts flows from there. We know that the mechanized world view is dying, and a new evolutionary story is replacing it — yet finding a way to incorporate that world view into the core of our organizations has been a recalcitrant problem so far.The NewHow, I thought, was a good step in the right direction for setting strategy and getting input. Though that’s only a piece of the puzzle. What missing from that description I feel is a way to collectively embody the new direction in the governance of the organization itself. And then continue to inspect and adapt as new information is revealed.I’m currently studying Conflict Resolution as a way to fold multiple perspectives of different people into the living governance of an organizational system. Holacracy is one take on a new operating system for organizations that works toward this.Overall, your point is spot on that Human Engagement needs to happen at every level of scale, distributed through-out the organization. To do this we need to change the governing systems of organization to allow people direct access to these systems (without resorting to paralyzing consensus). Only when the actual methods and practice of organization have changed, will people stop looking to HR to take care of their problems for them because they have no voice to do so themselves.Evan Leonard

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  2. Nilofer Merchant. April 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm  |  

    Evan – We do need to think about how to “embody” this as a governance system. Given my economics and business emphasis, i go to rewards, compensation, metrics (pointed to in chapt 8) and yet there is more to be done to figure out how to do talent management, and other pieces to enable change agents to embed human engagement systemically. It’s worth more thought on what those pieces would be….

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  3. evanleonard. April 23, 2010 at 9:10 pm  |  

    How about the way in which we determine the roles and accountabilities in an organization? How can these be set in a collaborative and iterative way? Typically I see two modes which both fail in the evolutionary frame for opposite reasons:1) The autocrat decides. Roles and accountabilities are set autocratically by a manager who may or may not solicit input, but ultimate owns the role definitions herself.2) Consensus decides. In this environment roles and accountabilities are very loosely defined because nearly every decision needs the consent of most of the group – or at least those with the most social influence.The autocratic mode fails by reducing the governance to the view of a single person. Who may in fact be a bottleneck, not able to process the volumes of new data than an organization faces everyday. This mode silences many individuals for fear of upsetting the boss.The consensus mode fails to move quickly enough to effectively scale. And interestingly it also silences many individuals from speaking up for fear of upsetting the balance, or of standing out.What does the idea of collaborative or interactive governance mean to you? Not consensus, but a structured process where people are given direct access to changing established roles and accountabilities?Evan

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  4. 4tuckertalk. April 23, 2010 at 9:22 pm  |  

    True engagement happens at the level of the conversation, when smart people with a shared goal come together to both dream big, and figure out how to get there. The ability to have these conversations well – to truly demonstrate respect for others’ ideas, to listen thoughtfully, to engage in productive debate and even conflict, to decide then what to do and do it, and to demonstrate appreciation for others talents – are such critical skills. In my experience, workplaces with employees that are “engaged” are the ones that have learned – systemically – how to have these conversations, and actually then have them, one at a time, over time. Like quality, there is no quick fix – it is a change in philosophy that requires us to stop asking what will engage employees, and to start actually engaging them well on a daily basis. Of course we need governance, processes, rewards, and all those good organizational tools – but those must happen hand-in-hand with the action of taking the time to sit down in a chair across from someone else, and getting truly curious about what idea they have that will change the world.

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  5. Bonifer. April 23, 2010 at 9:37 pm  |  

    Nilofer, as you know, I believe improvisation is the essential absent ingredient in most organizations with ‘people problems.’ You call it The NewHow, Hagel, Davison & JSB call it Pull, Pink calls it Drive, I call it GameChangers—it’s all part of the evolution toward the networked era of business, and more flexible and adaptive organizational models that networks demand. And it’s all improvisation-based.Here’s why I believe improvisation is to the Networked World what quality was to Deming’s Industrial Age: Improvisation is, by definition, the exact opposite of the biggest problem organizations still stuck in the industrial mode have. Scripting. I use this as the blanket term for any company where the prevailing belief is that there’s only one right way to do get things done, and that everything else is ‘wrong.’ As you know, this eliminates all the other possible ways of getting things done, and in the networked environment there are infinite ways to get to the objective. Companies who script—and this goes for everything from brand strategy to HR guidelines imposed by a few people on the rest of the enterprise—cannot keep up. They place policies ahead of people. They emphasize planning over preparation. They judge performance by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ rather than ‘consistent’ and ‘inconsistent.’ (There’s only one way to be right, but there are unlimited ways to be consistent!) They sap the system of entrepreneurship and enthusiasm. They get caught in win-lose status games (based on whose script ‘wins’). Externally, they attempt to inflict their brand narratives on customers who have their own narratives, thank you very much. I’m sure you and I will have many more conversations about this, but I really believe it comes down to this: If your company and your people do not have the ability to change the game, the game will change you, and not in ways that you’ll be able to do anything about…Thanks for the post. Great observations!

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  6. evanleonard. April 23, 2010 at 10:23 pm  |  

    @4tuckertalk Re: your comment: “Of course we need governance, processes, rewards, and all those good organizational tools – but those must happen hand-in-hand with the action of taking the time to sit down in a chair across from someone else, and getting truly curious about what idea they have that will change the world.”What is governance more than the act of sitting down hand-in-hand and agreeing together to act a certain way for a period of time?Governance is no longer a “tool” that the elite use to impose rules/guidelines on others. Governance is the systematization of making and updating agreements between people. The basic question is, can we agree on the _manner_ in which we will sit down and talk to one an other? If we have no common understanding here, we have no potential for productive world changing conversation. This is the realm of true governance.

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  7. 4tuckertalk. April 23, 2010 at 11:09 pm  |  

    @evanleonard – I think we are in violent agreement. I agree in both principle and philosophy with your comment about the role and ideal of governance – AND – I see too many organizations that allow governance to become an abstraction rather than an act. Sometimes, organizations spend considerable time musing about how they will organize and conduct theselves, so that they are then able to sit down and talk about the tough issues, without actually getting around to DOING it. They talk around it, about it, conceptualize it, etc – they get so busy talking about the “manner in which we will sit down; or how we will engage” that they don’t actually get around to the action. I fully embrace systems-level perspectives of organizational change and the question of how to foster engagement systemically – I’m just stressing the importance of two people looking each other straight in the eye and talking, and doing that with skill. In my consulting experience, organizations that are struggling with engagement issues are also those that underemphasize (if not quietly ignore) the continuous development of active listening, communication, and interpersonal skills – there’s a connection there. True story: I consulted a couple years back with the senior team of a very large company …. they were given feedback that the people below them felt uninformed and unengaged, and that those people wanted more communication about what was going on and to have more input into decision-making. The response? I kid you not – an exasperated CEO that said, “Give me a break, we had a meeting about communication last year. We took care of that!” Until people across the organization truly rethink how they communicate on a daily basis, we’ll continue to have a lot of fine people trapped in dysfunction.

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  8. evanleonard. April 26, 2010 at 2:25 pm  |  

    @4tuckertalk – point taken. You have to start where the organization is at. No use trying to introduce embodied system level engagement when the organization doesn’t even support a basic level of active communication!

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  9. Nilofer Merchant. April 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm  |  

    It’s true that Hagel, etc all point to this new integrated model requiring new skills. What i found interesting and i’m reflecting on it is that i’m in that bucket. I spent all of 20 pages talking about the problem and another 200+ talking about specific solutions to put into place via people/process/culture. i believe there’s a need for a workbook for change management that can provide more hiring + rewards work which is light in the #newhow…. Mike, your comment got me thinking that maybe from now on, i don’t do big pieces that point to the problem but just focus on the solutions and fixes cause EVERYONE already sees the need for a change. Like “Tools for Innovation” that i steal out of New How since i wrote a whole operating manual. (by the way, i was offline this weekend but watched conversation from afar…you all rock)

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