Monday, April 24, 2017

Remarkable Encounters - Part 1 : Teacher

It is said that we discover some parts of ourselves only in the context of our interaction with others. Some of these interactions are so enriching that they leave us feeling more complete, integrated, alive and human. In this series of posts, we will look at the impressions from some of the remarkable encounters I have had. To be of greater relevance, I have grouped these interactions into categories based on roles. In the first post, we will look at my impressions from an encounter with a remarkable teacher.

I have learned much from you, and it is not limited to what you have taught.

I have taken much from you, but I haven't diminished you. A lamp that lights another lamp Is not diminished in the process.

You taught straight from the heart, with your deeds amplifying your words. True integrity is the integration of thoughts, words and actions.

You gave me the courage to accept what I have known all along and to stand on your shoulders to see what you never been able to see. You gave me the benefit of doubt, perhaps more than what I deserved.

You encouraged me to experiment with new behaviors and perspectives and to discover the joy of learning . You discovered potentials in me that I could not recognize myself.

Yes, you have often cut me very deeply, to open up my channels of learning. But you used a surgeon's blade and not a butcher's knife and that too with infinite care and compassion.

You enabled me to be more of myself with all my peculiarities. For it is in our sharpness and not in our well-roundedness that we become unique and truly human as individuals.

You have demonstrated so beautifully that the teacher and the student can learn together.

In a world with so much information and so little understanding, a great teacher can indeed be the bridge from sight to insight. Yes, I do feel blessed, in more ways than one, that our paths have crossed!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The OD Quest: Part 3 – Rendezvous with L&D

"I don’t have an opening in my OD team now. But, you can join our recruitment team and do recruitment in the OD way”, I heard the Senior HR Leader telling a candidate who was hell-bent on joining the OD team. This was my fifth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ and ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him).

I was a bit taken aback by what I just heard. I knew that often these kind of ‘solutions’ will end in tears or worse. However, similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction forced me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issue - the application of OD(Organization Development) to the various functional areas in HR (Human Resource Management). That, in turn, has prompted me to write this series of posts on 'The OD Quest' where we will look at the possibilities  that arise when OD ventures into other parts of the people management terrain.

In the first post in this series (see The OD Quest: Part 1- Mapping the terrain) we did a cartography of the Human Resources (HR) and Organization Development (OD) domains to map out the current world (the terrain) inhabited by HR and OD and also the evolving worldviews in HR and OD (ways of looking at the terrain). In the second post (see The OD Quest Part 2 : Doing Recruitment in the OD way) we made a visit to the land of Recruitment and explored the value OD can add to Recruitment. In this post, let’s take our OD Quest to one of OD’s closest neighbors – Learning & Development (L&D) also known as ‘Training’ (though the term ‘Training’ is becoming increasingly unfashionable especially for behavioral training)

OD and L&D (as opposed to OD and Recruitment) are often considered to be siblings or even twins. In some of the organizations they also live in the same house (function) called 'Learning & OD'. When OD becomes more like OE/Organization Effectiveness that focuses more on the 'structural' dimension (e.g. Organization structure, job design, congruence of structural elements, workforce planning etc.) as opposed to the 'human process' dimension and/or when L&D is clubbed with Technical/Functional Training, they are more likely to live apart, in terms of the boxes and arrows in the organization chart, often with unfortunate consequences!

When it comes to the nature of work, the boundary between OD and L&;D is not often clearly defined (and it varies significantly across organizations). Typically, individual level capability building is considered to be in the L&;D land and group and organization level capability building is considered to be in the OD land. ‘Coaching’ is a hotly disputed territory between OD and L&D. Territorial disputes also erupt when it comes to  ‘change management’/’mindset/culture change’ kind of training.   

To me, the separation between OD and L&D is arbitrary and counterproductive. Learning’ is defined as ‘sustainable change in behavior’ and OD is about ‘facilitating change’. So, it is very difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. This is even more true these days when L&D has moved away from being primarily 'event-driven' and OD has moved away from 'conducting isolated ('hit and run')interventions'. Efforts to force a separation between the two often leads to 'things falling through the cracks'. More importantly, this can adversely affect the mutual value addition.

Let’s look at an example. One of the serious ‘crimes’ committed in the L&D land is that of ‘Training the victim’ where problems at the strategy/structure/process/culture levels are conveniently misdiagnosed as ‘capability issues’ and employees are sent for remedial training to fix their capability gaps (see ‘Training the victim’ for details)!  

A closer partnership between L&D and OD can improve the quality of the diagnosis/need identification and also help in better change management to sustain the ‘change in behavior’ and ‘transfer of learning’ as the OD function often brings in excellent diagnosis and consulting skills. Also ,OD can help a lot in terms of structuring the 70% (on the job learning) part of the 70:20:10 learning model (see ‘Truths stretched too far’ for more details).  Again, ‘Leadership Training’ often degenerates into some sort of ‘Corporate Rain Dance’  (see 'Leadership Training and Corporate Rain Dance' for details). Partnership with OD can help in addressing this also.

Similarly, large scale OD interventions often involve a lot of capability building where L&D can help. Again the L&D function often brings in significant program management capability that can be leveraged to enhance the effectiveness of the roll out of change management initiatives.

A closer partnership between L&D and OD also ensures that high impact domains like ‘coaching’ don’t fall through the cracks and that they are effectively addressed. Another key area where the collaboration between OD and L&D can add a lot of value is in enabling employees to transition from one responsibility level to another responsibility level that requires a different mindset in addition to a different skillset (See ‘Accelerated learning & Rites of passage’ for a related discussion).

So where does this leave us? OD and L&D can add a lot of value to each other. This works best when their ‘natural affinity’ (in terms of nature of work) is maintained in terms of organization structure. Hence an HR organization structure that combines the L&D and OD functions into ‘Learning &OD’ is much more likely to be impactful. This also facilitates better crosspollination of skillsets and a more integrated perspective!

Any comments/thoughts before we take our OD quest to the next domain in the HR land?!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The OD Quest: Part 2 – ‘Doing Recruitment in the OD way’!?

"I don’t have an opening in my OD team now. But, you can join our recruitment team and do recruitment in the OD way”, I heard the Senior HR Leader telling a candidate who was hell-bent on joining the OD team. This was my fifth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ and ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). I was a bit taken aback by what I just heard. I knew that often these kind of ‘solutions’ will end in tears or worse. However, similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction forced me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issue - the application of OD(Organization Development) to the various functional areas in HR (Human Resource Management). That, in turn, has prompted me to write this series of posts on 'The OD Quest' where we will look at the possibilities  that arise when OD ventures into other parts of the people management terrain. 

In the first post in this series (see The OD Quest: Part 1- Mapping the terrain) we did a cartography of the Human Resources (HR) and Organization Development (OD) domains to map out the current world (the terrain) inhabited by HR and OD and also the evolving worldviews in HR and OD (ways of looking at the terrain). Now, let us come back to the statement made by our Senior HR Leader – about ‘doing recruitment in the OD way’.  

Prima facie, OD and Recruitment appear to be ‘strange bedfellows’. Aren’t they at the opposite ends of the spectrum of HR activities in terms of their nature? Isn’t OD supposed to be much more strategic and evolved as compared to Recruitment? Aren’t the skillsets required for OD and Recruitment dramatically different?  However, when I thought about underlying issues a bit more quite a few possibilities started to emerge in addition to paradoxes! The crux of the issue here is ‘What is meant by the OD way?’.  

While OD is typically defined as a planned effort to increase organization effectiveness using behavioral-science knowledge, the domains that are typically associated with OD are Culture, Vision, Mission Values, Employee Engagement, Coaching, Collaboration, Diversity and Inclusion, dealing with hidden issues  and biases etc. Also the traditional OD approach has been that of action research (the process of systematically collecting data about an ongoing system relative to some need of that system, feeding thee data back into the system, taking action by altering selected variables within the system and evaluating the results of actions). Similarly, while recruitment can be defined as the process of bringing the right talent into the organization, the domains that are typically associated with recruitment are Attracting/sourcing talent, Selection, Offer, Joining and Onboarding.

Based on the above descriptions, it can be seen that OD can help in increasing the effectiveness of recruitment in many aspects including the following:

·    Increasing the person-organization fit (culture fit) during the selection process by mapping and evaluating fit on the relevant cultural and personality dimensions. Culture can be considered to be the personality of the organization and the fit of the personality of the candidate with that of the organization is something that is better addressed at the hiring stage as personalities (both individual and organizational) tend to be relatively stable (resistant to change)
·    Facilitating enculturation during the onboarding process (enhancing alignment with the organization values, vision and mission)
·    Ensuring  greater shared understanding of ‘what good looks like’ and hence avoiding unpleasant surprises

·    Helping in the formation and effective management of the psychological contract during the  recruitment process (see ‘Of salary negotiationsand psychological contact : before joining’  for more details)

·    Solving problems related to the recruitment process like early attrition  (through the action research process mentioned above and by enabling ‘sense making’)

·     Dealing with hidden biases in recruitment and thereby building a more diverse and inclusive organization.

·   Crystallizing the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) that embodies the essence of the organization to attract the right candidates and repel the wrong candidates.

·   Driving ‘bottom up culture change’ by identifying talent with the right ‘cultural DNA’ to be hired into the organization

Now, it can be argued that all these are integral parts of any good recruitment process. May be, that is exactly the point. OD is essentially a helping profession that enables individuals and groups to become more effective. At a fundamental level, OD is essentially about ‘process consulting’  - helping a client system to diagnose and solve their own problems. May be, we can just say that the application of OD makes recruitment better just like ‘sugar sweetens milk’ in the famous story* about Parsis.

Let’s come back to our Senior HR professional. What he was really advocating was to look at recruitment through the OD lens. There is a lot of merit in this. However, the danger in this situation was that the candidate might have interpreted it as a back-door entry into OD or might have inferred that there is a mandate to do a major overhaul of the recruitment process.  

So, where does this leave us? Can Recruitment be done in the OD way?  Yes, and that is just enlightened recruitment using what is considered to be the OD lens and OD skills! With Recruitment moving from 'being more like Procurement' to 'being more like Sales' to 'being more like Marketing', the relevance of the OD lens and the OD skills in Recruitment has definitely increased!

*The story goes something like this.: Parsis came to India fleeing from persecution in their Motherland Iran and landed in Gujarat. There they approached the local king Jadi Rana and requested asylum. Jadi Rana motioned to a vessel of milk filled to the very brim to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept refugees. In response, one of the Parsi priests added a pinch of sugar to the milk, thus indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflowing and indeed make the lives of the citizens sweeter. Jadi Rana gave shelter to the emigrants and permitted them to practice their religion and traditions freely. Parsis are still adding “sugar” to our lives!

Any comments/thoughts?!

Monday, July 18, 2016

The OD Quest : Part 1 - Mapping the terrain!

"I don’t have an opening in my OD team now. But, you can join our recruitment team and do recruitment in the OD way”, I heard the Senior HR Leader telling a candidate who was hell-bent on joining the OD team. This was my fifth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ and ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). I was a bit taken aback by what I just heard. I knew that often these kind of ‘solutions’ will end in tears or worse. However, similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issue - the application of OD(Organization Development) to the various functional areas in HR (Human Resource Management). That, in turn, has promoted me to write this series of posts on 'The OD Quest' where we will look at the possibilities that arise when OD ventures into other parts of the people management terrain. 

In the first post, we will begin by doing some cartography (that is, mapping out the currently known world inhabited by HR and OD). This cartography is not only of the world (terrain). At a more fundamental level, it a also a cartography of the worldviews (ways of looking at the terrain). So we will look at the various 'countries' in the HR world - like Recruitment, Training, Performance Management, Talent Management, Rewards etc. and see what happens when the OD quest reaches those countries. Of course, OD quest will explore the land of OD also,! But we will reach there towards the end of this journey because, as T S Eliot said, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  Of course, as soon as we make some progress with the cartography, we will venture out into the land of recruitment (in the next post in this series)!

To proceed further with our cartography (map making), we need to have some sort of working definitions of HR and OD. This is a difficult task as there are so many definitions. For the purpose of our discussion, we will use the following simplified definitions. Organization Development is a planned effort to increase organization effectiveness using behavioral-science knowledge. OD deals with a total system or with a subsystem in the context of the total system. Human Resource Management is about systems and processes aimed to enable the management of people within an organization so as to maximize employee performance (and engagement) in alignment with the strategic objectives of  the organization (See 'Towards a Philosophy of HR' for a deeper discussion).
So, there is an obvious overlaps in terms of overall objectives. However, when it came to actual tasks, there wasn't much of an  overlap initially, as HR was primarily focused on the basic processes related to people management (like Recruitment, Training, Performance Management, Career Planning, Compensation and Benefits etc.) whereas OD was focused on more 'ethereal' stuff like inter-team and intra-team collaboration, mission/vision/values, culture building, sensitivity training, action research etc. So, HR was mainly a set of regular activities whereas OD was a set of interventions that happened once in a while. But, this has changed quite a lot now.

These days, HR functions in most of the companies are gravitating towards some variation of the Dave Ulrich model with HR Business Partners(HRBPs), Centres of Excellence (CoEs), HR Shared Services etc. The overlap with OD happens mainly in the HRBP roles - especially when they are supposed to be 'Strategic HR Business Partners' (though what they actually end up doing varies considerably - see  'In the wonderland of HR Business Partners' for more details). Outsourcing of transactional activities in HR is also meant to prompt HR to be more strategic (though it might not always work out like that - see 'Nature abhors vacuum' for more details)

OD has also evolved from sensitivity training (in 'stranger groups' outside the organization) to sense-making (in 'intact teams' within the organization). Also, the tradition 'Diagnostic OD' (that used the 'action research' methodology to enable organizations to solve their problems) has been supplemented (not replaced!) by 'Dialogic OD' (that takes the organization reality to be 'socially constructed' and uses 'generative metaphors and images' to shape that reality).

More importantly, the worldviews (of HR and OD) are also converging with HR taking a more 'systemic view' and OD becoming more sensitive to and accountable for the sustainable value added by the OD interventions (as opposed to 'hit and run' OD interventions). Actually, the term 'intervention' no longer seems appropriate for OD work, as OD  work is currently viewed more as a 'dance involving the consultant and the client' as opposed to being some sort of an 'operation' done on (or done to) the client! 
Hence, there is a growing overlap between HR and OD. A more fundamental question is whether OD should be a CoE within HR or a separate function reporting directly to the CEO. There is no clear answer to this. Metaphorically speaking, whether OD is 'a country in the HR Union' or it is a 'completely independent entity' is a political question on which a referendum needs to be called for (again and again)! The first (OD being part of HR) is the more common scenario as of now, though it creates quite a few tricky challenges for both HR and OD (see 'OD Managers and Court Jesters'). One easy solution is to hire OD expertise from outside. But the question will come back to haunt us in another way - who will take the decision on hiring OD expertise- the HR Head or the CEO!

So,how should HR and OD respond to this overlap? Obviously,fighting over the disputed territory (however tempting that might be) is not the most effective solution. To me, one solution is for OD to remain a bit of an 'outsider' so that HR can fully be an 'insider'. Being a bit of an outsider helps the OD professional to be more objective (or at least not to have any vested interests) or even to be a bit provocative when required (see 'OD Managers and Court Jesters'). Being an insider allows HR to be fully part of the solution design and implementation. Of course, this calls for a very high level of mutual trust and respect between HR and OD. Also, remaining as an outsider while being a full member of the organization in all aspects is a very tricky 'tightrope walk' for internal OD consultants! Anyway, OD leveraging its marginality and HR leveraging its centrality to add value to the business seems the best possible solution to me. We must keep in mind that the concept of  'Business-orientation of HR' per se is quite paradoxical!
The above discussion does not complete our cartography. But we have done enough to start our 'OD quest'. It is important to remember that OD can be defined at many the levels (e.g. underlying philosophy and principles, process, tools/techniques, outcomes, skills etc.) and the quest can be done at any/all of these levels. While the story of this quest has been written from the point of view of OD, I have tried very hard not to take sides (I have done both HR and OD roles and I have the highest degree respect for HR professionals - see 'In praise of HR generalists' for more). The objective of the quest is to explore the various domains in HR with the twin objectives of (a) determining what value (if any) can OD add to the domain and (b) figuring out what OD can learn from the domain. Remember, it is a quest and not a conquest!!!
 Any comments/suggestions at this stage before we start our quest (starting with the land of recruitment in the next post)? Please let me know!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Personality Profiling : As simple as two plus two!?

Personality profiling is an evergreen business. Human beings find other human beings difficult to understand. And, those who bother to think about it, find themselves to be even more difficult to understand. So, if there is a 'scientific-looking tool' that can enable us to map ourselves and others into some sort of  predefined categories with 'precise-looking' characteristics and consequences, it reduces our (existential) anxiety and gives us a feeling of being in control. 

Now, there are all kinds of personality profiling tools. Almost every one would claim that their tool is the best (and an unadulterated blessing to mankind) and that the other tools are so seriously flawed that they can corrupt young (and old) minds and even souls! Though the validity and  usefulness of these tools are doubtful, I am very much certain that personality profiling tools can provide amusement and pleasant diversion from the unpleasant realities of work! Since, I have always aspired to be some sort of a 'Corporate Court Jester' (see 'OD Managers and Court Jesters' for details), how can I resist the temptation to jump into the business of personality profiling - at least for comic relief?!

My personal preference is for tools that are more like 'straws in the wind' - simple things that can give an indication regarding the direction of the wind (personality).I also know that when we give people an ambiguous question, people will project their own meanings into it and hence their answers would reveal quite a bit about their personality. Actually, this is similar to what happens in a human process lab where an unstructured situation is deliberately created so that participants will project their 'here and now' reality into it (say, in their attempts to structure the situation) which in turn can serve as a mirror for the underlying feelings and thoughts. All this led to the creation of the 'two plus two' personality profiling tool.

So, what is this '2 + 2' personality profiling tool? 
  • 2+2 profiling aims to highlight some aspects of the occupational personality of the individuals concerned based on how they will answer the question ‘What is two plus two?’
  • 2+2 profile is more of a ‘caricature’ and it is not intended to a ‘portrait’ of the individual
  • 2+2 profiling is intended to be a joke (with a grain of truth)
  • 2+2 profiling won’t work on people who have a mathematical approach to life (See ‘A mathematical approach to HR’ for details).
Since this is a 'caricature' of the personality, directly asking the question "What is two plus two' won't work. If we want to get an interesting answer, we have to ask people to answer the question "What is two plus two?'  in such a way that it reflects some prominent aspect of their occupational personality. However, considering the fact that we are better at making caricatures of others as compared to making caricatures of ourselves (and that many of us are likely to have an overly positive image of ourselves), it might be even better to ask  people to indicate how different members of their team are likely to answer this question in a way that it reflects the most prominent aspect of occupational personality of those team members.

Now let us look at some of the possible answers. Of course, many more are possible!

  1. Why do want to know? Why are you asking me? Who told you that I know the answer? What will you do with this information?
  2. Before we can answering this question, we need to have a detailed discussion on 'What is addition?'
  3. The answer can be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 22 depending on the organization culture!
  4. Both the 2s are my family friends. Let me tell you long stories about my last 4 meetings with them. By the way, since both of them are family friends, it won’t be proper for me to add them!
  5. What do you want the answer to be? You can choose the answer you like and I can help you to convince others that it is the right answer

Is there anything at all that you can infer from the answers about the people involved? Can you think of any modifications to the tool ? What about possible applications for the tool? For example, can we do some sort of a team building activity using this tool? (This could involve asking the team members to write down different answers to the above question so as to highlight key personality characteristics of themselves and of each of the other team members. Then each person can look at the various answers that others have written to highlight his/her personality characteristics and try to infer what could be the underlying personality characteristics. May be, they will learn something useful about themselves or at least about perceptions others have about them). What do you think?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Mathematical Approach to HR?! : Promoting Responsible Use of Numbers in People Management

"If we must apply a Mathematical approach to HR, let us go beyond Arithmetic. Human Resource Management is more like a differential equation that can have multiple solutions!” I heard myself telling the Senior HR Leader. This was my fourth ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ and ‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). This time, we were discussing the point of view that HR can get the elusive ‘seat at the table’ by being more data-driven, quantitative, objective and mathematical in its approach. Similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction also prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issues.

Mathematics and logic are immensely useful tools. The five and a half years of engineering education that I have received, my pre-MBA job as an Aerospace Engineer, the Social Research Methods related studies during my MBA and the initial years of my HR career spent in Compensation Consulting & Research Based HR Products  have made me very comfortable with quantitative and mathematical approaches to diagnosis and solution design.  Having practiced Six Sigma, I have experience in the process improvement approach of converting a physical problem into a mathematical problem, finding a mathematical solution and converting the mathematical solution into a physical solution.  I have also used quite a bit of statistics especially during the best practice & benchmarking studies during my five years in HR consulting. However, there was still something that was bothering me regarding my conversation with the Senior HR Leader.

Once I stayed with that feeling of discomfort for a while, things began to crystallize in my mind. The first thing that came to mind was an incident that happened a few years ago when my son was about 5 years old. I had bought him his first calculator and he was very excited.  For the next couple of days he was chasing me saying that “Tell me all your problems; I can solve them”.  It was an interesting task to convince him that most of the problems can’t be expressed in numerical terms and that even those problems that can be expressed in numerical terms can’t always be solved using the functions available in the calculator! When I thought about the matter a bit more, many other aspects came tumbling out:
  • Perfect Logic coupled with Questionable Assumptions : Logic is a great tool for reasoning. The problem is just that any system of logic is only as good as its assumptions. Great logical reasoning skills with wrong assumptions will just lead to a wrong inference faster. While this would hold good for any field, the risk is higher in HR, as the domain has quite a few unsubstantiated assumptions. Yes, over the last couple of decades a significant amount of research has been done in the Human Resources Management (HRM) domain. But the very nature of the domain imposes severe limitations on validating the assumptions underlying  HR related decision-making (See  ‘Research and a three-year old’ and ‘Truths stretched too far’ for a more detailed discussion)
  • Lost in conversion : When we look at applying the Six Sigma approach mentioned above (physical problem - mathematical problem - mathematical solution - physical solution) to HR, the difficulty is in ensuring that while converting the physical problem to mathematical problem the essence of the matter is not lost. Otherwise we might end up solving the quantifiable but peripheral aspects of the problem while the core of the problem (which is difficult to quantify) goes unattended. We must remember that many of the things that really count can’t be counted!
  • Misuse of Mathematical Induction: This occurs when one tries to apply a purely mathematical type of reasoning to a human process where it doesn't apply. I came across an excellent example of this in a HR Shared Service Centre (HRSSC). The Head of this HRSSC was a firm believer of setting 100% accuracy (zero error) as the performance target. His strategy for making this happen included a motivational talk to the employees with the following line of reasoning: "Can't you do one transaction without error? If you can do that what prevents you from repeating the same 12,000 times? This is all that is needed to make an 'error-free' year and meet your performance target”.  While the above approach seemed to be perfectly logical it was completely unrealistic from a performance management point of view. The transactions involved a large amount of manual intervention making it highly error prone. The ‘zero-error target' ended up de-motivating the employees (instead of motivating them) as they were highly unlikely to achieve it. This brings to mind a Zen Proverb - "Water that is too pure has no fish"!
  • Chasing the numbers: A related problem, that comes up especially when we try to quantify (because quantification is required for further processing) things that are difficult to quantify is that of making simplistic or overly optimistic assumptions to enable quantification and even to get the numbers that we want to get. For example, when we try to calculate the time required for doing a particular non-mechanical task (as the first step in estimating the required staffing levels), we often don’t take into account ‘invisible work’.  The invisible work arises from factors like complexity of the situation (that can’t be quantified easily) and the difference between ‘the process map’ and ‘the way things actually get done’. While in the case of the latter, it can be argued that the solution is to fix the process, it might be difficult in a situation when complex interfacing/influencing is required to do the task or in a situation where fixing the process is difficult at the level of the jobholder (as it involves fixing the ‘ecosystem’ around the process in addition to the process). Emerson was not too far off the mark when he said "The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which days never know"!
  • Banning complexity and complex motivations : Another problem comes out of a definition of rationality (a mental model) that is too narrow. As Mencken says, "to every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong"! In many areas related to people management, there are deep psychological factors operating that render purely ‘logical’ approaches ineffective.  See ‘Performance ratings and the above average effect’ for an example.  Similarly, when we consider only the (visible) employment contract and ignore the (invisible) psychological contract another set of problems arise (See the series on ‘Salary negotiations and psychological contract’ for more details). Another example could be viewing the interactions with the labour unions (say in the context of arriving at a Long Term Settlement) as a purely economic negotiation exercise. The reality here is that a union is a political entity with a constituency to satisfy. Hence, even if the management offers a ‘competitive deal’ (by industry standards), the union leaders might have (internal) compulsions not to accept it and resort to various pressure tactics (including demonstrations and stoppage of work) - just to convince their constituency (members) that they have done all they can to force the management to offer a better deal (or the best possible deal). 
  • House built on sand : We also have the interesting problem of processing/computing data without paying adequate attention to the ‘level of measurement’ that generated the data.  Typical problems involve taking ‘ordinal’ or ‘interval’ data and apply computing methods that are valid only for ‘ratio’ level data. This could be more of a problem in HR, since many of the HR professionals are not well-versed in quantitative methods. The numbers can give us a false sense of surety and doing Arithmetic operations with those numbers to derive inferences can give us a false sense of confidence on the decisions based on those inferences.  There is a huge difference between being able to calculate something and being able to understand it. If our objective is to influence that 'something', being able to calculate it without being able to understand it can create more harm than good. It often becomes very difficult to convince HR leaders who are ‘too sure of their numbers and calculations’ that HR process maturity takes time or even that ‘It takes 9 months to make a baby regardless of how many couples you put on the job’. This becomes very pertinent especially in those situations where a business leader or the CFO (without any HR background) has been moved into the HR Head role! This brings us to a more fundamental issue. The over-reliance on numbers sometimes indicates a (stated or unstated)  shift in the underlying paradigm for people management in the organization- from a relational paradigm to a transactional one. This is something that we must watch out for (See 'Towards a Philosophy of HR' for more details).   
  • Wishing away the paradoxes and dilemmas : People Management, by its very nature, is a field that is full of paradoxes.  A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another. A paradox can’t be resolved in the same way a problem can be solved. To effectively deal with a paradox, we must wrestle with it till we reach a level of understanding (or wisdom) that enables us to see the paradox in a new light and arrive at the most appropriate solution in that particular context. Often, there are multiple solutions -making HR more like a differential equation (that has multiple solutions) and not like Arithmetic (where there is one right answer)! It can also be argued that dealing with some of the issues HR is even more complex than dealing with differential equations because in some of those paradoxical situations, the choosing from multiple ‘correct’ solutions is a matter of Aesthetics and not Logic! One can develop a keen sense of this 'Aesthetics' only through years of struggle with the paradoxes and dilemmas  in HR(See 'Truth and Beauty : Elegance and Motivations in HR' for more details)

So where does this leave us?  To me, best approach is that of ‘triangulation’, that combines qualitative methods with quantitative methods to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the reality. We should make an effort to figure out if the particular HR issue that we are dealing with is more like a ‘problem’ or more like a ‘paradox’ and deal with it accordingly (See ‘Making problems disappear’ for details). Data and analysis are very useful. But they are not substitutes for understanding and wisdom. Even when it comes to the matter of strategy making, it has been argued that the core strategy making process is essentially intuitive, with data & analysis being useful as an input/trigger for strategy making and also as tool for doing a reality check on the strategy created.  The same holds in the case of HR strategy also! We must also remember that in the physical world (outside Mathematics) there are 'singularities' where 'normal rules/algorithms' no longer work!

Similarly, benchmarking is definitely a very useful tool. But benchmarking should be done with the context also included (and not just the numbers).  For example, benchmarking a ratio like the ‘ratio of the total number of employees to the number of employees in HR’  can be misleading without the understanding of context specific factors like the mandate/deliverables of the HR function, the HR operating model, the degree of outsourcing, the degree of automation (degree of Employee and Manager Self-Service), profile of the workforce etc. Casual benchmarking, like casual sex, is easy but dangerous!  We must also ensure that HR processes and practices follow from the HR Philosophy of the company and not the other way around (a common problem that arises from the obsession with 'best practice benchmarking'). Yes, we must leverage numbers and the power of numbers in HR. However, let’s use them responsibly - by ensuring that the numbers and the calculations accurately reflect the underlying reality!

Any thoughts/ideas on promoting more responsible use of numbers in people management?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

To name, or not to name, that is the question...

"Do you think that I should have announced my successor?", asked the Senior HR professional. This was my third 'encounter' with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ' & 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment '  for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). "Well, it depends on what you were trying to achieve", I replied in a 'consultant-like' manner. Similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction also prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issues.
In this particular case, the situation was something like this: This gentleman had created a structure in which many of his direct reports were at the same level – handling roles of similar size. This ensured that all of them could hope for moving into his role and hence contributed to their engagement & retention. However, this also ensured that when this gentleman moved on to another role, none of his direct reports were ready to takeover from him & hence his role had to be filled with an external candidate. With their illusions broken (and considering the fact that the situation could repeat a few years later), many of the direct reports started looking for jobs outside the company.

Now, there are multiple levels of issues here. The most basic one is the need for succession planning. There should not be too much controversy here, as most of us are likely to agree that succession planning (especially for critical roles) is a worthwhile endeavor (Whether the Head of HR role qualifies as a ‘critical role’ is an interesting issue – but that is another story/blog post!). The second one is the need for a structured approach to develop people who are in the succession plan so that they become ready for the role within a specified time-frame. Here also there should not be much disagreement when it comes to the validity of the need, though the implementation is easier said than done, as it involves quite a bit of investment/focus to ensure that the requisite capability building takes place within the timelines.  

Things get more complicated when we think about whether or not to tell the people who are in the succession plan that they are part of the succession plan. The problem here is that doing this can create high expectations (and even some sort of ‘entitlement mentality’) among the people in the succession plan and also create disengagement (or even attrition) among people who are not in the succession plan. The latter becomes a significant problem if they are very valuable contributors in their current roles, though they did not make it to the succession plan for the next level role. However, not informing those in the succession plan might defeat the very purpose of succession planning.
The purpose of including an employee in the succession plan for a position is to enable him to develop readiness for the position within an accelerated time-frame. It would work much better if the employee is aware of the purpose for which the development is being undertaken. It definitely helps to tell an employee that he is part of a succession plan, so long as the communication is done in the right manner. This would also avoid the risk of developing an employee towards a position that he is not interested in. Again, this would prevent the unfortunate scenario in which such an employee leaves the organization because he thought that he was not being developed for the next level role! 

However, the communication has to be done in the right manner. The communication should mention that the company sees the potential in him to develop towards the particular position and that the company will provide accelerated learning opportunities to enable him to develop readiness for the same. It has to be made clear that no promise is being made that the employee will be moved to the target position within a specified period of time. It should also be mentioned that there could be multiple people in the succession plan for the position and that the actual move to the position will depend on business requirement, vacancy and his relative readiness as compared to other possible candidates for the position. Stretch and discomfort are inherent in accelerated development. If an employee is aware of and is committed to the purpose behind the development, he will be able in a better position to derive meaning from the stretch experience, to learn faster and even to enjoy the ride!
Let us come back to our Senior HR professional. There are no easy answers to his question. However, let me hazard a guess based on our discussion so far. It  would have been better if he had done the succession planning for his role and told the people in the succession plan that they were being developed for his role. Of course, this would require that the identification of people for the succession plan was done in manner that was rigorous and fair (and also seen to fair!). For example, all his direct reports (at least those who were interested in developing towards  his role) could have been put through a well-designed Assessment Centre (see 'Assessment Centres and Leaps of faith' for details). 
Now, let’s look at the matter of deciding the ideal number of people in the succession plan for a particular position. Announcing only one successor (like the senior HR professional was mentioning) would have been a very risky option. It would have made the organization dependent on only one person and/or it could have made the person in the succession plan a bit complacent. Putting too many people in the succession plan also would have been sub-optimal. It would have made the investment required for developing all these people too high and also reduced the chance for any particular individual to succeed in moving to the target role. Hence the best option would have been to identify  a few (say, 2-3) people who were relatively more ready at that point (say, based on the Assessment Centre results) to be on the succession plan and to tell them they were being developed for his role. This would also allow the others direct reports to either make peace with this situation (as a fair process has been followed to identify the people in the succession plan) or to exit the organization gracefully - at a time of their choice (without any hurry and possibly with a very good offer). Yes, this is not a perfect solution. But, it seems to be the best solution available!.
Do you agree?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Polarities of leadership

To me, leadership is primarily about achieving the optimal balance between the various polarities in organizational life.

You are a leader if you can find the right balance between polarities like
  1. Being confident & making a vulnerable connection
  2. Providing hope & being realistic
  3. Driving change & maintaining stability
  4. Shaping the organization culture (and the definition of 'good' in the organization) & adjusting to the organization culture
  5. Taking too much risk & taking too little risk
  6. Focusing on the long term & responding to immediate challenges
  7. Taking charge & letting others take charge
  8. Maintaining a broad perspective & developing micro-awareness
  9. Being consistent & being  flexible
  10. Organization building & creative destruction
  11. Acting based on who you are as an organization & acting based on what the environment demands
  12. Holding on & moving on
The ‘right balance’ is highly context specific. It is also a dynamic balance/equilibrium as opposed to a static one(In a state of static equilibrium there is balance, but no change or movement - that exists in the case of dynamic equilibrium.  For example, a chair has static equilibrium while a bicycle in motion has dynamic equilibrium). Again, the equilibrium point is an evolving one - based on the evolution of the leader, followers and the organization.

All in all, it is quite a moving target & that is why it is so difficult to ‘train in’ leadership. While useful inputs/helpful experiences/coaching can be provided, leadership capability emerges in a non-linear fashion in the being of a person based on years of struggle with the polarities mentioned above! Of course, all the organizational issues are not ‘polarities’ and  one of the necessary conditions for leadership to emerge is the ability to differentiate between ‘a polarity to be managed’ & ‘a problem to be solved’!!

So, what do you think? If the 'work of leadership' is conceptualized mainly as 'achieving dynamic balance between polarities in organizational life', what does it mean for (a) leaders, (b) for team members (c) for organizations & (d) leadership development?

Note:  Since we have defined the work of leadership in terms of  'achieving optimal balance between polarities in organizational life', it would be interesting look at this 'optimal balance' in more detail. It is not about 'compromise' between the two poles (like a consistent score of 3 in a 1 to 5 scale-with 1 representing one pole and 5 representing the other). It is more about being a '1', '2', '3', '4' or '5'  based on the situation. Strangely, it also involves  transcending the scale by (as Pirsig says) catching the bull (polarity) by both its horns (poles) & even singing the bull to sleep. It is not about being 'timid' and avoiding strong decisions/behavior. It is about the ability to display a wide spectrum of responses and the courage to choose the appropriate response based on the situation. The courage also involves the willingness to explain why a particular choice was made in a particular situation - so that the behavioral flexibility won't become confusing to the team (i.e. variation in responses has to be accompanied by consistency at the level of underlying principles of choosing particular responses in a particular situations & these principles have to be communicated to the team - otherwise this flexibility will come across as inconsistency). Yes, this also involves taking feedback/admitting one's mistakes and revising one's mental map when required. Deep understanding & trust about the leader (i.e. understanding 'who he is' in terms of the principles governing his actions) - developed over a period of time - will obviate the need to explain everything every time! It is said that 'sometimes, who you are speaks so loudly that people can't hear what you are saying'!

Developing this kind  of behavioral range, that too across the many polarities in organizational life, takes a lot of development (psychological/spiritual growth) on the part of the leader. Please note that displaying a wide range of behaviors can put a lot of pressure on the leader's psyche as it involves  'holding multiple sets of diametrically opposite ideas in the mind at the same time' and constantly adjusting the balance/(as it is about dynamic balance as opposed to static balance). Yes, this development/growth (like all psychological growth) can be taxing as it demands regularly stretching one's boundaries. No -this does not mean that there is no room for the natural self/style of the leader, as it is about expanding the self as opposed to developing towards some (standard) 'ideal self'. Yes - it usually takes significant amount of time. But, we need to keep in mind that this development is a matter of degree & that different people learn at different speeds. So, investing in increasing one' ability to 'derive learning/growth from experience' becomes critical - especially for young leaders!!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Leadership training and Corporate Rain dance

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a report which said that in the current difficult economic scenario, Indian companies are investing more in leadership training programs for their senior managers. The ‘espoused interpretation’ for this was that it will help the senior managers to be better leaders, enabling them to respond more effectively to the challenging scenario. While this was certainly a possibility, it did make me wonder if there are other interpretations possible. That is where rain dance comes in.

Let us begin by taking a closer look at the terms.
Rain dance is a ritual that is intended to invoke rain. The rain dance was common among tribes who lived in regions that received very little rain. Since the little rain they did receive was essential for their survival, they felt compelled to something to invoke rain (to influence their destiny). The result was rain dances. Over a period of time, intricate rain dance rituals were developed (that were supposed to do a better job when it comes to rainmaking). While there is no empirical evidence that rain dances caused rain, they did serve other useful purposes like giving them hope, enabling them to feel that they have some degree of control over their destiny/environment, deepening relationships among the members of the tribe etc.  
Leadership training involves all the training programs (Instructor-Led-Training programs) that employees are sent to with the purpose of making them ‘better leaders’ (whatever that might mean). These can be internal or external training programs (often designed/delivered by consultants/business schools). They are usually conducted off site (away from the pressures and distractions of regular work) and are often very expensive.

Corporate rain dance would mean rituals (events/ceremonies/programs) in corporate life that are designed to achieve an essential business objective (better business results/business survival in difficult times etc.) without sufficient empirical evidence that the ritual actually leads to the intended outcome. Going back to the report on the increased investment in leadership development programs, it made me wonder if they (at least to some extent) constitute some sort of corporate rain dance. Of course, there are other examples of corporate rain dance, including many types of ‘strategic business planning meetings’!
I have nothing against rituals in corporate life. Businesses are run by human beings and rituals have always played an important role in human societies. Please see ‘Accelerated learning and Rites of passage’ for an example of how to leverage the power of rituals in business organizations. It is just that we should be aware of what they can and cannot do when we are investing in them.

Leadership training is a Multi-Billion-Dollar industry. There is also a huge amount of literature on ‘leadership’. I have no intention to get into a detailed discussion on ‘leadership’ here. (Please see ‘Of leaders and battle-scars’, ‘The leadership sandwich’ & ‘Reasons, Rationalizations & Collective Delusions’ for some of my thoughts). For the purpose of this post, I will just raise the top five questions that have been bothering me("The best fool can ask more than the wisest man can tell" J).
  1. If ‘learning’ is defined as ‘sustained change in behavior’ how much empirical evidence exists that ‘learning’ results from leadership training programs?
  2. There are many people in top management positions who speak eloquently about the great leadership training programs their companies have. However, I have rarely heard anyone of them talking about a particular leadership training program they have attended that made them (or played a big part in making them) who they are now.
  3.  If ‘leadership development’ goes much beyond ‘leadership training’ (and if leadership is supposed to be learned ‘on the job’ supported by coaching) then why is most of the money/effort is concentrated on ‘offsite’ leadership training? 
  4. To what extent are the designs of leadership training programs based on a deep understanding of the concept of leadership? If the design is based on a particular leadership model/theory, has enough effort been made to check the empirical validity of the theory/model?
  5. If the underlying model of leadership goes beyond the traits and leadership style of the leader, to focus on the relationship between the leader and the followers, then why emphasis is only on training the leaders? Can any form of leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers? 
Now, let us look at another type of ‘corporate rain dance’ that happens frequently in the domain of leadership development : redesigning leadership competency frameworks & then redesigning all the leadership training programs based  on the new competency framework. Here also the underlying belief (that leads to the rain dance) is that by changing the leadership competency framework we can build better leaders and thereby improve business performance. Sometimes, this can also be a case of 'Training the Victim'. A few years ago, I heard (from reliable sources) about a global company, that changed its leadership competency framework because the new CEO said something like ‘Leaders should Lead’ in a meeting with the HR Leadership team. In response to that statement from the CEO, the HR Head ordered redesign of the leadership competency framework & all the leadership training programs based on the same, spending Millions of Dollars. It also ensured that HR people at the global corporate office (who were under the threat of losing their jobs) kept their jobs and (as the company was a global giant) it contributed to the GDP of many countries in terms of spend on downstream work like ‘Train the Trainer programs’, reprinting of program material & of course putting the leaders through the newly developed training programs.

I am not saying that one should not redesign leadership competency frameworks. It is very easy to find fault with any leadership competency framework and hence no one can argue against the need to redesign the same. The trouble is just that the new framework might also have an equal number of (but possibly different) problems. Hence, unless there is a very clear difference between the new and the old leadership competency framework (that too very clearly aligned to a key strategic priority), the Return On Investment is unlikely to be positive. I also think that ‘competency frameworks are only an intermediate stage’ and that one needs to go beyond them..
Now, let us come back to leadership training programs. What exactly am I trying to say?

One does pick up useful insights, ideas and concepts from these programs. They provide a welcome break from the unpleasant realities of work. They can also act as some kind of signalling mechanism - to communicate (to the participants & to the significant others around them) that some people have been identified as leaders.

Like rain dance, they provide an opportunity connect more deeply with colleagues, provide new hope to the participants & provide satisfaction to the business head that something is being done to improve the business situation. The participants might also see them as recognition/reward– especially if the program is offered only to a select few/if the program is considered to be a prestigious one/if the program is an expensive one (remember, it is tax efficient also - for both the employer and the employee!) . The program might even have some placebo effect on leadership behaviors!J 

Going back to another beneficial dimension of rituals, leadership training programs can also act as 'rites of passage'/'initiation rites' to leadership-  especially if they (like initiation rites in tribal societies) involve doing 'dangerous things'; this danger can be either psychological (like doing something silly in front of a group) or physical (like what happens in some of the outbound training programs) - as they help in transitioning to a new self!! Hence, just as rain dance served a useful purpose in tribal societies for many centuries, leadership training programs can also serve a useful purpose in business organizations – even if that purpose is not the same as the espoused purpose!

If, the rain dance (leadership training program) is not leading to rain (developing better leaders), the organization should seriously consider whether to invest more in 'making the dance better' (e.g. by adding more modules to the leadership training program) or to explore other ways for rainmaking. Improving the dance can add to its value as a ritual up to a point (but not beyond that). Of course, it is possible that some of the other popular ways of rainmaking (e.g. 360 degree feedback) might also turn out to be 'rain dances'! But some of them (e.g. putting people through roles designed to provide a higher learning potential & helping them to derive meaning from their experience in those roles through coaching) might actually work!!!   

Any comments/ideas?