Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 'paradoxical importance' of people

 "Show me whom should I fire", said the global business leader to the HR Head. The global business leader and the HR Head were reviewing the performance of the company operations in the country they were visiting. During the review, some complex issues were highlighted and that was when the global business leader made the above statement.
After two decades in the domain of people management, if there is one thing I have understood about the domain, it is that the domain of people management is inherently paradoxical. While the above statement made by the business leader seemed like a knee-jerk reaction (and reflecting a 'not so people-friendly' philosophy), it also highlighted the underlying belief that people make all the difference (and that just by changing some of the people the company performance issues can be fixed). 

Yes, in some cases, the cause of business performance issues can be traced back to particular individuals. But, in many cases the main problem might not be related to the capability level of the individual employees at all. The problem could mainly be at the strategy, structure, policies or processes level. However, it is relatively difficult/inconvenient for the business leaders to address the issues/make changes at those levels. So, there is a temptation to jump to the conclusion that it is an employee capability issue that can be fixed just by replacing the people involved.

Yes, it is highly tempting to 'throw people at problems'. This becomes even more of a concern in organizations that worship 'newness'. These organizations go through repeated cycles of trying to improve company performance by firing a large number of employees and replacing them with new employees. Even when there is no evidence to prove that the newly hired employees did any better than the employees they replaced, this gives the leaders the satisfaction that they took quick and decisive action. It can also create an illusion of progress, by wrongly equating 'change' with 'progress'

Sometimes, these people changes can trigger a chain reaction. There is often explicit or implicit pressure on the newly hired leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the change agenda by replacing the team members they have inherited. 'Infusing new talent from outside' appears to be much more progressive and decisive as compared to just 'recycling the existing talent'. This can snowball into large number of people changes with the associated disruption/ripple effects (and an absolute bonanza for recruitment consultants)!

In a way, what we have here is an 'irony'. Irony is the paradox of consequences. Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what was intended. In the particular example that we started this post with, an action that was based on the belief in the importance of people and the impact people can create, led to a consequence that was not at all people-friendly!  

Another paradox here is that the global business leader asked the HR Head to show him the people to be fired. While HR is very much expected to 'know the pulse of the organization', line managers are often in a much better position to diagnose and address business performance issues. This also raises interesting questions on the role of the HR function and what exactly should be the right type of 'business-orientation' that HR function should demonstrate

The domain of people management is rich in paradoxes, dilemmas and ironies. My new book 'Life in organizations - Paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities' explores many of those paradoxes, dilemmas and ironies in more detail. The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions.. 

Would love to to hear your comments/thoughts!!!


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stuck at the right level?!

 "But, you are stuck at the right level", protested the direct report to the CXO.  The direct report was having a conversation with the CXO on the career progression opportunities (or the lack of it, to be more precise). During the conversation, the CXO had claimed that he was in the same boat as he was also stuck in his role (because he had no real chance of becoming the CEO). That was when the direct report came up with the statement that we started this post with. It did prompt me to think more deeply about if there is really something like 'being stuck at the right level'.

There is indeed some merit in the argument that if one has to get stuck in one's career, it is better to get stuck at as high a level as possible, because it implies a higher salary and the associated benefits and perquisites. The problem is just that all these money and other advantages of being at a senior level might not eliminate the psychological feeling of being stuck. I guess, there is something in the human psyche that 'demands' progress! Yes, this 'progress' need not necessarily be only in terms of climbing the corporate ladder. However, if one has spent so many years climbing the corporate ladder, it is highly probable that one's (unstated) definition of 'progress' got colored by all that climbing!

Of course, one can try to become unstuck by moving to a 'bigger' role in another organization. However, narrowing of the organization pyramid when one moves to more senior levels is a reality and a lot of people will get stuck sooner or later. So, this problem can't be wished away and finding an opportunity to get stuck at the right level might not be such a bad idea!!!

We do see an increasing number of mid-career professionals taking up consulting/freelancing kind of options. The trouble is that majority of those mid-career professionals are unlikely to earn at least as much as they were earning in their regular job. Yes, there are a few who make it really big. 

There are also quite a few who use this opportunity to reinvent themselves and configure some sort of ‘portfolio life and career’ that is more aligned to their higher calling or more conducive to their self-actualization journey. Based on my interaction with a large number of people who have transitioned from corporate careers to coaching/consulting/freelancing, I can confidently say that making such transitions for the right reasons and with the right expectations is very important for personal happiness, professional effectiveness and and indeed for experiencing a sense of freedom and progress!

In domains like HR, there is an even more basic question that we need to look at – ‘’Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop?”. If the answer is “No”, then it creates a fundamental issue for the bulk of the HR professionals who are in the 20+ years’ experience range.  Yes, there will be many senior HR professionals who will continue to grow in their career within business organizations. But, here we are talking about career options available to bulk of the population - HR professionals with 20+ years’ of experience working in business organizations. 

In this context there are also dimensions like motivation and meaning, apart from that of just being gainfully employed (Please see ‘Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR’ and ‘If you hang around in HR for too long’ for more details). After all, work is as much about finding the daily meaning as it is about finding the daily bread!

Any comments/ideas?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Problems that refuse to remain solved : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

After my book on 'Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities' got published, I received multiple queries on how to correctly identify paradoxes in business organizations. This is a very important question, as not all the problems that we face in organizational life are paradoxes.

Many of the problems that we find in organizational life can be solved using regular problem-solving methods. Categorizing a simple problem as a paradox can complicate our lives unnecessarily. Some problems are to be solved, some problems are to be swamped out (by putting them in the broader context) and some problems are to be approached through paradoxical thinking. 

To me, the easiest way to spot a paradox is to look for problems that refuse remain solved. If an organizational problem is indeed a paradox, it cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems. There are many fundamental problems in management that have not yet been ‘permanently solved’ - even after decades of efforts by managers, consultants and management gurus. So, when you encounter such a problem that refuse to remain solved, you are likely to be in the presence of a paradox. 

The domain of people management is rich in such paradoxes. A paradox occurs when there are multiple points of view on an issue, each of which are true and essential, but they appear to be in conflict with one another. That is why basic aspects of people management like hiring, employee engagement, performance management and rewards have become renewable resources, where solutions to the problems will create new problems to solve, and they will continue to provide opportunities for 'management' and  'thought leadership'. The good thing is that this phenomenon has sustained an entire ecosystem of ‘HR Professionals, People Managers, Consultants and Thought Leaders’ for many decades!

Paradoxical thinking is not about about endless analysis. In organizational life, decisions have to be taken, and often quickly. Paradoxical thinking is just about enabling better decisions - by developing a more nuanced understanding of the conflicting perspectives, wrestling with them for a while and taking a decision based on that higher level of awareness. Yes, it is highly context-specific, as the attempt is essentially to find the best possible equilibrium point of the conflicting forces(pushes and pulls) acting on us at that moment in the given context!

Yes, managers are paid to manage, and paradoxes can indeed be managed, if we use the term 'manage' the sense of 'to cope with effectively' instead of 'to fix it permanently'. If we approach paradoxes with the respect they deserve, they can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life.  Yes, it is this very process of identifying, understanding, wrestling with and responding to the paradoxes that opens up possibilities for creative living at the workplace (and in life)!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Judging a Book by its Cover : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

One of the most frequent questions that I have received on the book is related to the image of a gyroscope on its front cover.  What is a rather scientific looking image doing on the cover of a book about the paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities in organization life?

Let me make an attempt to explain the thought process that led to this. 

Managing paradoxes in organizational life is more about achieving the right dynamic equilibrium or
'dynamic balance' between the conflicting forces (the opposing pushes and pulls acting on us at that point in that particular context) as opposed to regular problem solving. A gyroscope is an example of dynamic equilibrium and it was further  shown to be balanced on a person's finger to bring in the human element.

The primary attempt in this book is to take a closer look at the some of the key paradoxes, dilemmas and polarities that we encounter in business organizations, and, to wrestle with them for a while. This can help us to reach a higher level of awareness that makes it possible for us to respond creatively to the contradictions in our specific context and to actualize the possibilities for living a more fulfilling and effective life in business organizations.

Paradoxes are divergent problems. While convergent problems should be broken into pieces and solved, divergent problems should be approached differently. They should be transcended using a higher awareness and scope.  This often involves arriving at a higher plane where the diverging forces converge. While this is indeed more challenging, wresting with divergent problems often lead to breakthroughs. Creative leaps and integration are made possible by the presence of divergent problems and simultaneous opposites.


Without the ability to hold competing perspectives in mind simultaneously, we risk losing sight of the wisdom and opportunities that emerge when we pursue paradoxical thinking. Holding contradictory ideas in the mind is not easy, as it creates cognitive dissonance, stress and anxiety. However, it is a very valuable skill in a world full of contradictions. While it is said that eastern cultures more naturally embrace opposites, it is indeed a learnable skill. It will also help us to resist the temptation to oversimplify the situation and to wish away the paradox. As organizations and individuals work though higher and higher levels of uncertainty and change, paradoxical thinking can enable us to differentiate ourselves


Dealing with paradoxes need a high degree of openness, mental flexibility, intellectual honesty and humility. It also calls for some sort of ambidexterity and tolerance for ambiguity at the organizational level, to live with conflicting perspectives. This is what differentiates paradoxical thinking from the typical management approaches that worship clarity, predictability and control. 

A paradox cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems and do more harm than good. This is the reason why many of the fundamental problems in management have not been ‘permanently solved’, even after decades of efforts by managers and consultants. However, if we approach them with the respect they deserve, paradoxes can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life!   

Now let us come back to the image the gyroscope that was used to represent the concept of dynamic equilibrium or dynamic balance. While a gyroscope is indeed an excellent example of dynamic balance. a bicycle in motion could also have conveyed the same idea.  But, the gyroscope looked like a more profound metaphor!

I guess, I have a soft corner for gyroscopes as they are also used to stabilize/orient satellites in space, and I started my career with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as an engineer. Yes. this is a rather curious mix of rationality and emotions! Maybe, that is the way most of the human decisions are!!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

The Why of a Book : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

I started my career as an Aerospace Engineer at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre of the Indian Space Research Organization. Engineering is essentially about problem solving. Yes, it also involves creativity, optimizing within constraints and making design trade-offs. However, the core reality remains that the problems in engineering are meant to be solved. After I made the ‘quantum jump’ from engineering to management, I started becoming more aware of another type of ‘problems’ – problems that cannot be, and even should not be, ‘solved’ in the engineering sense.

Slowly, it occurred to me that these kinds of  problems are probably the norm, as opposed to being exceptions, when it comes to life in business organizations, especially in matters related to people and people management. 

A paradox is a situation with an inherent contradiction. A paradox occurs when there are multiple points of view on an issue, each of which are true and essential, but they appear to be in conflict with one another. This implies that that we cannot resolve a paradox in the way we solve a typical problem. We cannot choose one of the options over the others without oversimplifying the situation. 

What is possible is to struggle with the paradoxical situation for a sufficient period of time so that we can reach a higher level of awareness and deeper understanding of the context and the issue, that will enable us to come up with the most effective response at a given moment. These responses are not necessarily solutions in the normal sense of the word ‘solution’. Sometimes, these are effective ways of coping with the situation. Sometimes, these responses involve totally reframing the situation and opening up radically new possibilities.

Here, we are using the term paradox and paradoxical thinking in a broad manner. Therefore, it will also involve dilemmas, polarities and dialectic, though strictly speaking, they are not necessarily paradoxes. A dilemma occurs when one has to make a choice between two mutually exclusive options, neither of which is clearly better than the other one. If these options are polar opposites, then we have a polarity. 

A dialectic is a pattern that begins with a thesis followed by an antithesis and resolved by a higher synthesis. This synthesis can be followed by another antithesis and the pattern can repeat, though at a higher level, as one point of view teaches the other point of view instead of invalidating it!  Another term that is relevant here irony. Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what was expected. In a way, irony is the paradox of consequences.  

This book is the outcome of my struggle with these paradoxes, contradictions, dilemmas and possibilities over the last two decades. While this struggle can indeed be very frustrating, it also holds the key to achieve a higher level of awareness and more nuanced understanding that can open a wide range of possibilities for us – possibilities for responding creatively and effectively to the paradoxical situations that we face at work and in life.

This book is an expedition through the paradoxes, dilemmas, polarities and possibilities in the various aspects of organizational life. Our focus will be on ‘real world paradoxes’ that impact our effectiveness in business organizations, as opposed to ‘logical paradoxes’ that are more like logical riddles. The book is organized in a manner that anyone who works in business organizations should find it interesting. If you are a people manager or business leader or if you work in the Human Resources domain you will find many additional insights. I do not promise any algorithmic solutions or to do lists. However, I do promise a lot of triggers for insights!   

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Of espoused values and enacted values

"This slide has a spelling mistake", remarked one of employees attending the 'corporate values workshop'. "Sorry, I can't find it", said the puzzled facilitator. "The problem is with what is shown as renewal. The correct spelling should be removal!", replied the employee. 

We come across these kinds of tragicomic situations when there is a significant difference between the 'espoused values' (the values that an organization publicly states that it believes in) and the 'enacted values' (the values that the organization actually exhibits) of an organization. The enacted values get reflected in the manner in which the organization treats its stakeholders, including the employees. 

In the particular incident that we started this post with, the employee did have a point. The organization had gone through repeated cycles of trying to renew itself by firing a large number of employees and replacing them with new employees. While there was no evidence to prove that the newly hired employees did any better than the employees they replaced, it did give the management the satisfaction that they took quick and decisive action. It also created an illusion of progress (or even an illusion of renewal). So, 'renewal' in this organization actually meant 'removal' though it was referred to by means of more progressive terms like 'workforce refresh' and 'top-grading'!

It is indeed 'fashionable' to have well-articulated set of corporate values. Also, how can we even think of (let alone work with) an organization that doesn't have any values? However, the most essential thing about values is that they should be 'valued'. To me, something should be called a value only if it is so important (so valuable and so core to the organization) that the organization will exhibit it even when it leads to competitive disadvantage or results in a loss to the organization. Also, values are about 'who you are' as an organization and hence the values are 'discovered' (not 'designed'). 

Unfortunately, many organizations trivialize values and hence the values 'safely' remain in corporate presentations and on the walls of the organization. The arduous journey from the walls to the head to the heart and to the hands is never even seriously attempted. Ironically, this lack of congruence between the espoused values and the enacted values of the organization creates the highest amount of 'cognitive dissonance' and 'disengagement' in the case of those sincere employees who take the organization and its stated values seriously.

Any comments?

Friday, December 4, 2020

The silent organization

"I noticed something surprising during my induction program. While I met many employees from the various functions and levels in the organization, no one told me any stories about the organization. This has never happened to me in any of the organizations that I have worked before!", said the newly hired employee with a puzzled expression. 

The first thing that came to mind when I heard the above exchange was the Sherlock Holmes story ‘Silver Blaze’. The following exchange takes place in the story: 

Scotland Yard detective: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Scotland Yard detective: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Typically, employees like to tell stories (from the 'glorious past' of the organization) to a newcomer. These stories could be about a great leader who architected a turnaround in the organization, about a team that managed to accomplish a difficult goal in the face of overwhelming difficulties, about something that the organization did that made big impact on the society, about an amazing example of customer service, about a significant innovation or technological breakthrough made by the company, about outsmarting the competition etc. The stories also could be about something in which the employee was personally involved like an accomplishment, a great manager or team member or mentor, an incident where the company went out the way to support the employee during a crisis etc. 

Telling these stories to a newcomer allows the employees to 'relive' the incident and feel proud and energized. These stories can help the newcomer to connect to the heart and soul of the organization better than any facts and figures presented during the induction. It is said that a social group (including an organization) constructs its reality through the stories and legends. These stories embody the culture and values of the organization and serve as an effective enculturation tool. Also, the connect between the new employee and the organization (a key component of employee engagement that impacts the motivation and retention of the new employee) happens mainly through the connect the new employee forms with the current employees (and their stories!). So, this kind of storytelling is highly beneficial for the newcomer, the existing employees and the organization. 

If these stories are absent, it can be a sign of potential trouble for the organization and a useful 'early warning' for the new employee. Silent or 'story-less organizations' tend to be devoid of 'identity' and 'soul', and, hence it becomes impossible for the stakeholders, including the employees, to connect to it at an emotional level. After all, what is there to connect with?! 

Hence, typically, these kind of 'silent situations' occur when the employees are unable to connect emotionally to the organization or when they don't feel proud about the organization, their function or their job. While it is possible that 'nothing worth mentioning has happened in the organization', it is more likely that the employees 'didn't feel the connection and ownership' to what has indeed happened.  

These situations are more likely in organizations that take a more transactional approach to people management and don't pay sufficient attention to employee engagement, sense-making and creating a sense of belonging. Another possibility is that the organization has done something  trust-destroying (or even 'soul damaging'), like a 'mismanaged restructuring' or 'acting in a manner that very much at odds with the espoused values of the organization'. 

The difficult thing here (for the organization) is that the situation can't be remedied just by getting the internal communication function to hunt for/write a large number of stories and do an intense campaign based on those stories. It is because the problem is with the 'emotional connection' to the stories and not with the absence of stories. In a way, it is a like the type of diabetes that occurs not because of lack of insulin but because of the loss of sensitivity to insulin! 

At the most fundamental level, this is exactly the way it should be. Storytelling is an intensely human activity and unless the human side of the organization is given adequate importance and nurturing, storytelling (and culture building and employee engagement/retention based on the same) would be an impossible dream! 

Stories come alive (for the storyteller and for the listener) only when they come 'straight from the heart' and that can happen only if the employees can connect with the story (and the organization) emotionally (and not just rationally). So, in an organization that doesn't invest in building and sustaining an emotional connect with the employees, employees are unlikely to connect with 'corporate-sponsored stories' and they are even more unlikely to tell those stories to newcomers. Yes, the employees might derive some pleasure in ridiculing the 'corporate-sponsored storytelling' attempt!    

Postscript: One of the queries that I have received in response to this post is whether this kind of storytelling can happen without face to face interaction (as virtual working is the norm in the current pandemic situation). I think that storytelling and the connect through the same can take place through virtual interactions also. These days, even psychotherapy is being done effectively through virtual meetings. It has been said that one of the advantages of virtual meetings is that one can observe the other person very closely without making that person feel uncomfortable. Of course, it works the other way around also!

Any comments/ideas?

Monday, October 26, 2020

Metaphors for coaching

"Over the last ten years, the company assigned six high-profile executive coaches to develop me. But, none of them could change me!", declared the business leader triumphantly. This was my third encounter with this gentleman (See 'Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters' and 'Of reasons, rationalizations and collective delusions' for my earlier encounters with him).

This conversation came to mind again when I was thinking about metaphors for coaching.

Metaphors create new understanding. Also, a new understanding merits a new metaphor! Hence, as my understanding of coaching evolved, I have tried to develop new metaphors to capture that new understanding. There are many types of coaching. Here, I have focused only on my evolving understanding of 'non-directive coaching' and the metaphors corresponding to that .

My initial metaphor for coaching was that of a plane mirror, because I looked at the coach as someone who listens deeply and plays it back to enhance the self-awareness of the person being coached. Rhetorically, the thought was something like this: "May be, if the coach can 'hold a mirror to' the coachee, the coachee himself will 'speak to the man in the mirror, and ask him to change his ways"! 

Then, I started feeling that the role of the coach is a more 'active' one - someone who helps to convert the abstract thoughts and feelings in the mind of the person being coached to a more concrete form that would make it easier for him/her to understand and analyze his/her thoughts and feelings. This brought to mind the metaphor of a musical instrument (e.g. a piano) that can convert abstract 'music notation' into music that can be heard and enjoyed. This is very useful, because, while the music notation contains the music, most of us can understand music only when it is instrumentally interpreted!

After that, I started feeling that the above 'musical instrument' metaphor was 'too active' as different musical instruments convert the abstract music ('thoughts and feelings') differently. That is when the metaphor of the concave mirror, that not only reflects without distortion but also focuses reflected light, sounded more appropriate to me (as the coach focuses the discussion so that the person being coached is able to work towards solutions more effectively)! 

A concave mirror can magnify when it is close enough, like what a shaving mirror does (similar to a coach who is fully present in the moment being able to help the person being coached to 'see' things that are not apparent to him/her). However, if the concave mirror is moved too far away (or when the coach doesn't stay in the 'here and now' of the person being coached) the image can get inverted (or the coaching can go topsy-turvy)! 

There were other metaphors also that came to mind:

  • an 'electric charge' which creates a field around it, like as a coach 'creates a field of learning' or 'holds the space' so that exploration, solutioning and change becomes easier for the person being coached
  • a 'positioning system' that helps you to figure out where you are without telling you where to go
  • the 'Socratic method' that enables you find your own answers though a series of questions, like a coach who asks questions without giving answers etc.)
  • a 'stock option' which is an option but not a compulsion to exercise the option to buy the stock, just like coaching is an invitation and not a compulsion to explore
  • a 'cartography' where the coach enables the person being coached to create/revise his/her mental maps so that he/she can navigate better towards the desired state
  • an 'alchemy' that transforms 'base' metals (thinking) into 'gold' (or refined thoughts)
  • a 'catalyst' that makes it easier for a chemical reaction to take place without actually participating in the chemical reaction, like a coach enables the person being coached to find and implement his/her own solutions without offering any solutions/getting involved in the implementation.
  • the 'Cheshire cat' who engages in amusing and insightful conversations without actually giving an answer :)

It also gave rise to compound metaphors for coaching like 'Socrates holding a concave mirror'!

I am sure that as my understanding of coaching (and I as a coach) evolves, I will find better metaphors.  This is even more appropriate because metaphors are also a great tool for coaching, as the unconscious mind prefers to speak in the language of metaphors. Yes, we must explore what a particular metaphor means to the person being coached as the same metaphor can mean different things to different people. Again, 'generative metaphors' are immensely valuable for the person being coached, because they enable him/her not only to crystallize the desired new reality, but also to generate the energy to work towards it!

To me, coaching at its core is a deep human connect and joint exploration that changes not only the coachee but also the coach. While the processes and tools are useful in coaching, the 'super power' that the coach brings is his/her presence, being completely there in the 'here and now' of the moment with the coachee without judgment. To me, the most important consideration during the coaching interaction is simply 'what would be most helpful to the coachee at that particular moment, keeping in mind the objectives agreed with the coachee'. This also requires a very high level of self-awareness and awareness of the context on the part of the coach. In a way, coaching is more of a 'state of being' than 'doing'. 

Now, let's come back to the conversation at the beginning of this post. What the business leader was really saying was that "if six high-profile executive coaches couldn't bring about any change, then it proves that there was nothing that required changing in the first place!". This brings us to a very important point : no change will take place unless the person being coached wants to change. This is especially true for non-directive coaching. 

To me, the coaching works best when it is the coachee who feels the need for coaching and pays for it, because, both the conviction and commitment of the coachee are highly probable in such a scenario. It is true that in most of the cases,  the coaching is paid for by the employer of the person being coached. In that kind of a situation, we get the best results when the employee is offered coaching as an option (and not a compulsion)! Also, this works better if the coaching is offered as an investment that the organization is willing to make to enable the employee to accelerate his/her development or to realize his/her full potential (as opposed to the coaching being remedial measure). Again, confidentiality has to be assured and the employee (the person being coached) should be empowered to drive the 'direction' of coaching. After all, coaching is an invitation, and not a compulsion, to change!

Any comments/ideas?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Of change, progress and a kaizen story

Let’s start with a kaizen story, that I heard a long time ago. A particular organization had rolled out kaizen (continuous improvement). An incentive scheme was also launched to reward the employees who make any such improvement in any part of work. So, one person successfully claimed a ‘kaizen’ for putting some flowerpots in the work area and thereby ‘improving the work environment’.  After sometime, another person successfully claimed a kaizen for removing those flowerpots and thereby ‘improving the flow of people and materials in the work area’. So, we were back to square one though it counted as two kaizens (making the organization appear ‘continuously improving’) and both the employees received their incentive payout!

While the above story might come across as a caricature (and not a portrait) of what actually happens in business organizations, it has more than a grain of truth. The biggest source of waste in many business organizations, that so deftly escapes even lean six sigma and productivity improvement efforts, is that results from frequent changes in direction and the tendency to equate ‘change’ with ‘progress’. Yes, rapid changes in direction, including fast U-turns, helps in creating some sort of illusion (or even a convenient collective delusion of) progress and of taking 'decisive action'. The point here is not that one shouldn’t change the direction when it is required or that one shouldn’t correct one’s mistakes. It is just that one should have some accountability for one’s decisions and the organization and human costs associated with them.

This works well in Human Resource Management (HR) also. One of the great ‘advantages’ of being in HR is that one can get credit for both hiring and firing the same person, that too in rapid succession. Similarly, we can get credit for adding a reporting layer to ‘integrate’ and also for removing that layer to ‘increase efficiency’. Yes, this leads to the HF2 model of HR, where HR is reduced to Hire (sourcing), Feed (payroll) and Fire (exit). Of course, one can have other (more ‘fashionable’) functions in HR. But they are more of ‘show horses’ than ‘plough horses’!

Postscript : This post, especially the 'kaizen story' at the beginning of this post,  generated quite a bit of discussion on social media. It left me wondering why such an old story could connect so well. Now, I realize that it is because the story almost perfectly matches the definition of a 'myth'. A myth is a story that keeps on happening again and again in various forms, because it contains a deep truth (a deep truth about the nature of reality in organizations, in this case)!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Talent's progress

Is there a perspective that can throw light not only on the progress of  employees, but also on the effectiveness of people management in the organization? Tracking the changes in the positioning of employees on the talent grid over a period of time can be an excellent option!

There are many ways in which the progress of an employee ('talent') in an organization can be depicted. The most concrete one is in terms of the roles the employee takes up in the organization. Then there are aspects like compensation, responsibility level etc. that can also be used to track the progress of an employee in the organization.

In this post, let's look at the progress of employees in the organization in terms of a more abstract (though very widely used) representation - in terms of the changes in the mapping of the employee to the performance-potential grid. This grid, often called the talent grid, is typically a 9-box one, with box 9 corresponding to high performance coupled with high potential. 

If we track the changes in the positioning of the employees on the talent grid over a period of time, say for 3-5 cycles of talent review process that lead to the mapping of the employees on this grid, the trends emerging from the same can give us very interesting insights on the effectiveness of Talent Management in the organization. 

Ideally, employees should shift right and/or up on the grid. This would mean that the Talent Management in the organization has managed to help the employees to improve their performance and/or potential. Similarly, if the general trend in an organization is that employees would shift left and/or down and then out of the grid (and the organization!) it can be an indicator of lack of effectiveness of people management in the organization. 

Of course, these movements are also dependent on the employees (their performance and demonstrated potential). However, the overall trends in the movements on the grid (for a group of employees) can provide valuable indications on the effectiveness of people management in the organization.  These employees went through the selection process of the organization before they started featuring in the talent grid and hence the organization can't easily disown them or their movements on the talent grid! 

Yes, there could be other factors at play. For example, if the organization has imposed some sort of normalization on performance ratings and/or on potential ratings, this would limit the percentage of the employees who can be in box 7, 8 and 9 (the boxes in the talent grid that denote the best talent positioning). Also, if 'long term' performance (and not recent performance) is what drives the positioning on the performance axis of the grid, the degree of  'fluctuation' along the performance axis of the grid is likely to be lower. 

There is also this interesting phenomenon of stickiness of the ratings, especially potential ratings.  The extreme case is when the organization takes the stated or unstated position that the 'potential' is a non-modifiable factor, in which case no movement on the potential axis would be possible. Mercifully, most organizations consider potential to be some sort of a combination of ability, aspiration and leadership and somewhat modifiable. 

All this assumes that the definition, the rating scale and the calibration norms for performance and potential (that lead to the positioning on the talent grid) remains consistent over the years/over the period used for trend analysis. Else, there is a possibility of scenarios similar to that of 'reducing poverty by redrawing the poverty-line'!  

There could also be deeper factors like the tacit definition of 'what good looks like' and  the unstated assumptions regarding people management in the organization  (e.g. 'we hire a person based not only on the fit to the current role but also on the fit to the future roles' or 'we hire people mainly to solve a particular problem at a given point in the organization's journey'). 

As we have seen in 'Type N and Type O Organizations', in  the case of 'Type N' organizations, the relatively new employees have a great advantage over the other employees, though this advantage vanishes quite quickly as they become 'old' (tenured)! This can lead to rapid changes in the grid positioning as the employees tend to get over-positioned on the grid initially and then shift left and down (and out!) very quickly. This creates a lot of action (and an illusion of progress) on the people management front, though over a period of time it might become apparent (if the organization is open to see it) that quality of talent in the organization hasn't improved and that 'the new is not really outperforming the old'!

 So, where does this leave us? Though Talent's progress (or lack of it) on the performance-potential grid is a rather abstract way of capturing the Talent trajectory', it can indeed provide very useful insights on the effectiveness of people management in the organization! While the movement of a particular employee on the grid is mainly a function of the performance and demonstrated potential of the employee, the trends in these moves at the group level points to the effectiveness (or lack of it) of people management in the organization. These organization level trends can also be very useful in unearthing the unstated assumptions that the organization has made on people and on people management!

Any comments/ideas?