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    Spring Break Rewind #1 - People, Process, and Productivity Killers

    Note: It is Spring Break week here in Western New York, (for the school-age kids anyway), and while I will still be working and traveling to New York City to present at a conference, this week will be busier than most. So this week on the blog I'll be re-running some pieces from the last 12 months or so. Yes, I am being lazy. Cut me some slack. Anyway, if you are on Spring Break this week, I hope you have a great little vacation!

    This piece - 'People, Process, and Productivity Killers', originally ran in May 2012.


    Last week an interesting piece called '5 Ways Process is Killing Your Productivity', ran on Fast Company, a look and take on how overly rigid productivity systems, (like Six Sigma or TQM), can potentially have a detrimental effect on organization productivity and potential for innovation. As someone that has always balked or at least held a cynical point of view when productivity systems based in traditional manufacturing models were attempted in non-manufacturing environments, I thought the piece raised some excellent arguments, particularly when we think about the application of soft or people processes inside organizations, whether for performance management, development, or even for methods of collaboration.

    I won't re-cast the author's entire point of view here, I'd recommend reading the full piece on Fast Company, but I do want to pull out the five productivity reducing ways that over-reliance on process methodology can have on performance and productivity, and ask you to think about them in the context of your organization and your initiatives, challenges, and opportunities as a talent or human resources professional.

    1. Empowering with permission, but not action

    HR example: Tell employees 'they own their career development', but offer no support at all, (time off, funding, guidance, suggestions), as to how they might pursue development opportunities

    2. Focus on process instead of people

    HR example: Did all the mid-year performance reviews get done? 100% in? Success!

    3. Overdependence on meetings

    HR example: Actually this is not limited to HR, most organizations still rely on the formal meeting, with way more than necessary attendees, to move along projects and initiatives. Just look at it this way, how do you typical react when a meeting suddenly gets cancelled? If you are like most, you revel in the 'found' hour or two back in your day. Meeting cancellation is like a mini-Christmas.

    4. Lack of (clear) vision

    HR example: Sort of a larger point to try and cover here, but certainly you can relate to being buried in the process or function of people management, legally required and self-imposed, that we simply miss or fail to articulate, (and then act upon), a bigger vision for how we can enable people to succeed and execute business strategy. This is the 'in the weeds' feeling you might be experiencing since it is Monday. But does it really ever go away?

    5. Management acts as judge, not jury

    HR example: Obviously, earned or just unfairly ascribed, the position of HR as police or judge has a long and not easily remedied place in many organizations. HR can't and shouldn't always be an advocate for the individual employee at the expense of the needs of the organization, but when the function is viewed as simply punitive, or even just indifferent, the chances for HR to effect meaningful and positive impact on people is certainly diminished.

    I think one of the essential conflicts that arise in interpersonal relationships is the conflict between people that prefer or need strict rules and order, and the more free-spirited folk that see rules and strictures at best as more like broad guidelines, and at worst as mandates set by people that lack their own creativity and vision and can be safely ignored.  Or said differently, between people that have to clean all the dinner dishes before bed and those that are happy to let them sit in the sink overnight. Both are 'right' of course, which leads to many of these kinds of 'process vs. freedom' kinds of arguments. 

    What do you think?

    Have processes or set-in-stone rules you may have imposed in your organization helped?

    Have they allowed people the room they need for creativity and innovation?

    Do they keep you in the role of HR police far too much?

    Happy Monday!


    Technology, Service, and Dehumanization

    My pal the great Paul Hebert had a fantastic piece over on Fistful of Talent titled 'What HR Should be Thinking About in 2013', an examination of some of the most important and interesting business and product/service challenges facing organizations, and how HR departments can or should be responding to these challenges. The entire piece is excellent, and I encourage you to read it all, but I wanted to call out two (related), trends Paul highlighted and compare them to another, different example where business, policy, and pragmatism seems to be at odds with what we 'know' to be sound business advice. Retro Robot

    First - the two bits from Paul's piece at FOT:


    The crucial element in any customer experience is still people, no matter how much technology has transformed the landscape. The larger an organization, the more it relies on the thousand tiny decisions its frontline employees make on a daily basis. And listening to their collective wisdom is more important than ever.

    NOTE TO HR:  Nothing really to add here – just go read that paragraph 100,001 times before starting your next initiative.


    There’s almost no transaction that can’t be automated today, from buying groceries to learning about health issues. And customers are starting to resist. Look for places to act more human. 2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity.

    NOTE TO HR:  This is my mantra for 2013 and on. Just change the word customer to employee in the previous paragraph.  It truly is about BEING HUMAN.  And you all SHOULD be the experts at it!

    Both of these trends or areas of focus boil down to essentially the same thing - the return of the importance of real and human interaction at the most important customer touchpoints -, which for many kinds of industries are often the responsibility of the most junior and lowest-paid employees. Think call center reps, cashiers, customer service agents, food service folks, the guy who parks your car at the valet - you get the idea. So the advice from both Fast Company and Paul makes perfect sense - listen to your front-line staff, make your organization more 'human', don't jump to automation just for its own sake, etc.  

    Hard to disagree with that line of reasoning. Or maybe not so hard. Take a look at an excerpt from another piece from the Wall St. Journal online titled, 'Can the Tablet Please Take Your Order Now?':

    Carla Hesseltine is considering buying a few tablet devices for her bakery so customers can place orders for her signature M&M cupcakes on their own, straight from the counter.

    The reason: She fears the $7.25 an hour that she currently pays her 10 customer-service employees, mostly college students, could rise, perhaps to $9 an hour under a pledge by President Barack Obama earlier this month.

    In order for her Just Cupcakes LLC to remain profitable in the face of higher expected labor costs, Ms. Hesseltine believes the customer-ordering process "would have to be more automated" at the Virginia Beach, Va., chain, which has two strip-mall locations as well as a food van. Thus, she could eliminate the 10 workers who currently ask customers what they would like to eat.

    Did you get all of that? A local cupcake shop thinks it smart, cost-effective, and beneficial to replace their front-line, low-paid workers, the ones that make up the vast majority of customer touchpoints, with a couple of iPads and a custom menu app that will allow customers to place orders without having to actually talk to any of the staff.

    And Ms. Hesseltine's cupcake shop isn't the only one thinking about how technology and automation can reduce or even eliminate or at least reduce the human interaction between customers and front-line staff. More from the WSJ piece:

    Tarang Gosalia, of Cambridge, Mass., hopes he can get away with having fewer employees waiting on customers at the three hair-salon franchises and one frozen-yogurt outlet he owns by using Square, a three-year-old technology brand designed to streamline credit-card transactions. He is planning to test it out starting in June to see if it will make accepting payments easier and faster for his staffers—and therefore allow him to downsize. About 70% of the 35 employees who work for his combined businesses currently earn $8 an hour, the minimum pay required in his state. Raising prices to offset the higher payroll costs strikes him as too risky, because he worries his sales may suffer.

    Some entrepreneurs see a promising market in selling technologies to small businesses that might help them to streamline operations and do away with low-wage workers, or retrain them for higher-skilled jobs. An automatic hamburger flipper currently in development could replace low-wage line cooks at a beachside burger joint, for example.

    FastCompany could very well be correct, that '2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity', but as the examples from the WSJ piece tell us, at least for small businesses, (and I bet many large ones as well), cost, compliance, and even the lack of available talent are still conspiring to drive organizations to at least consider further automation and technology-driven substitutions for human interaction.

    Technology can be liberating, it can free up time and resources for people and organizations to actually provide better customer experiences, but it also can be really dehumanizing at the same time. When tablets replace counter help, when robots are the new short-order cooks, when the check-in, check-out and everything in between becomes just a series of user interfaces, touch screens, and customer-machine interactions, we are moving in the opposite direction from humanity as a differentiator.

    I think the real challenge for HR and business in 2013 (and beyond) isn't deciding whether or not to automate, but rather making the critical decisions about where and how the organization can afford to automate and where it can't.

    Have a great weekend!



    Vocabulary, Intimidation, and Recruiting

    WARNING: Another sports-related post follows...

    There was a terrific piece by Dan Wetzel from Yahoo! earlier in the week on the recent rise to prominence of the Stanford Football program and that featured an in-depth interview with the team's head coach David Shaw. If you don't follow college football and are not familiar with Stanford's team, the essential bit of information is this - after many years as a middling to unsuccessful program the team, under former coach Jim Harbaugh (now the head coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers), and current coach Shaw has had a recent and remarkable run to national prominence, posting a 35-5 record over the last three seasons, and sending a steady stream of players on to the NFL.

    All this success has transpired while the program contends with what have been traditionally seen as disadvantages in big-time college sports - Stanford is a really tough school to qualify for academically, and once enrolled, the academic demands the school places on its students, (football players too), often rule the school out as a choice for the kind of elite football prospect that a major college program needs in order to compete with the likes of Alabama, Texas, or South Carolina. So getting enough talented players that are good enough for Division 1 play AND that can qualify academically AND actually want to attend Stanford - well, you see what kind of a recruiting challenge that faces Shaw and his staff.

    So beyond validating a potential recruits' interest in Stanford, reviews of their high school game tapes, verification of the academic transcripts, and ensuring their SAT scores are suitably impressive - what else does Shaw do when determining if a player would be a good match for the Stanford program?

    He evaluates a player's vocabulary. Yep, their vocabulary.  Check this from the Yahoo piece:

    Superior academics are mandatory for admission and success at the elite university. Great athletic ability, strength and speed are a necessity to play for the reigning Pac-12 champions. Character, leadership and motivation are highly valued intangibles.

    And then there is something unique Stanford coaches evaluate when meeting with a prospect, something that few would think predicts football success.

    "Vocabulary," Shaw said.


    "Yes, you look for vocabulary," he said. "Can this kid express himself in a way that befits a Stanford man?

    "You walk around and talk to our kids, they look you in the eye," Shaw continued. "And we play that way. We are going to play right at you, in your face, 'Here is who we are, here is how we play.' There is a one-to-one correlation. There is no doubt about it to me. The inability to be intimidated by a person or a situation is something that is significant.

    Really interesting spin on the recruiting evaluation process - particularly in a job where 'success' is complex and multi-dimensional (probably similar to the roles in your organization).

    Sure, 'success' as a college football player entails excellence at some significant physical levels - speed, strength, etc. But at a place like Stanford, 'success' also means excelling in a demanding academic environment, one where a player almost certainly will not be the smartest person in the room, and where there status as an athlete probably doesn't afford them any special treatment greater than someone who is a great scientist or developer or entrepreneur.

    Look again at the last line in the David Shaw quote above - "The inability to be intimidated by a person or a situation is something that is significant." It is pretty easy to tell who is or isn't going to be intimidated on a football field, but in business and in life - well, it is not so easily discerned.

    Can a person's vocabulary be a good proxy for that rare quality - the ability to not get pushed around a conference room or in a meeting, or to use a recently trendy term, to 'lean-in' even when it would be easier to withdraw?

    No matter what we think, it seems to be working for Shaw and Stanford.


    On phone calls and productivity

    Yesterday I took a fairly easy shot at everyone's favorite communication whipping boy, email, comparing the typical send/receive ratios of email to SMS, which continues to be the most engaging two-way communication medium. Today I want to think about another method of communication that perhaps is not examined nearly as much as the many electronic means of communication at our disposal - the old-school phone call.

    Yes, the phone call, a real live one person talking to one other person conversation, that (normally) requires just about 100% attention and concentration from the two participants.  The phone call - that personal connection and interaction that many of our social media and networking 'experts' exhort upon us to pursue with our online personal and professional connections - ostensibly to make the connections more 'real', (as if the millions of emails, texts, Tweets, and status updates we are sending are somehow 'unreal').

    Regardless, I caught a really interesting piece recently on the Big Picture blog, where the author Bob Lefsetz calls out the phone call as a colossal waste of time for anyone whose business is information or data or even 'Big Data'.  Here are the key passages from the piece I want you to think about:

    Prior to the Internet era, an entertainment titan would make in excess of a hundred phone calls a day. Do you think he was making deals? No, he was learning things. Extracting information that would help him proceed.

    Now most of this information is available to everyone.

    Yes, I’ve established a Grand Central of information. If you say you talked to me on the phone, you’re lying. Because I almost never do. Maybe one business call every other week. Usually to an oldster who is not net-savvy. You see just like the Wall Street traders I know it’s about speed. I haven’t got the time to waste on the phone, where you take twenty minutes to talk sports, kiss my butt and then ask for the favor. Let me know in an e-mail, instantly.

    'If you say you talked to me on the phone, you're lying.' That is probably my favorite line of 2013 so far.

    But think about it, maybe your job or most jobs even are not completely about gathering, categorizing, analyzing and making decisions based just on data. But as the level, complexity, volume, and speed of data about business, people, markets, customers, candidates, etc. continues to accelerate it makes at least logical sense that time carved out of your schedule to talk on the phone, (or sit in a meeting) with only one other person is going to impact and possibly detract from your ability to see, gather, and understand all this data.

    The person you are talking with might have something you need, or, you might have something they need, but can you afford in the words or Mr. Lefsetz the 'twenty minutes to talk sports' in order to get to those needs?

    Data might kill the phone call I suppose, if more people take Lefsetz' 'I don't have time to talk to you because I might miss something' approach, but then I suppose better tools to automate and synthesize the oceans of data that are important to us today then it might actually save the phone call as well.

    I'd have the time to spend with you one-on-one if after I hung up the phone and could look at a dashboard or a consolidated activity stream or a report that told me exactly what I just missed, what I need to look at, what actions I should take, and why it's important to me.

    If you know of that kind of a tool and how I can get access to it, give me a call.

    I promise I will pick up.


    The most engaging method of communication you're not using

    Let me clarify the post title a little - maybe it should be 'The most engaging method of communication you're organization is not using', but I read somewhere the best titles connect with people personally, so I left the 'organization' part out.

    Two charts below will lay it all out for you. The first, courtesy of Business Insider's Chart of the Day:

    Most people read this chart with the 'big' takeaway being something like 'Wow, young adults send a ridiculous amount of text messages each month'.  But that's not the only, or I'd submit the most important bit of insight from a chart like that.

    What am I getting at? 

    Take a look at the second image - a snippet from my personal Google account activity report from last month, the section that reports back my email aggregate usage for the month. Think about what this data says (admittedly just for my, but I am betting your experience is similar), compared to the text message data above.

    The Google data shows that in the month I received almost 10x more email messages than I sent - and that is not accounting for spam and other stuff that I have filters set up for to skip my Inbox entirely - add that stuff in and I bet the ratio of emails received to sent would balloon to 20x. Email is essentially a massive ocean of noise with a tiny bit of signal mixed in, and that requires really close and dedicated attention in order to monitor.  I am in email multiple times a day, have been using it as a communications tool forever, and STILL miss or lose track of important messages more often than I care to admit.

    Mine (and yours too I bet) experience with text messaging however much more closely resembles that even received/sent ratio we see in the first chart. Look at that chart again - while absolute volumes of text messaging decline as age groups advance, there are still more texts sent than received across the spectrum. Think about that again - every age group sends more texts than they receive.

    Email is a mess - we are constantly looking for the important stuff, hoping we don't miss anything, and engaging with, at best, 10% of it in total.

    Text on the other hand is almost all signal - we read all of them, we respond to just about all of them (and usually within minutes), and we send more than we receive. It has to be the most engaging popular method of communication - and yet I bet most of us have not tried to incorporate it into organizational communications in a meaningful way.

    I'm not saying it's easy - but if you can figure out a way to get permission (bought or earned) to the SMS Inbox, the one really important Inbox people monitor - then you are playing a different game than your competition.

    They're spending time, money, and talent trying to avoid the dreaded 'Mark as spam' designation.

    Have a great week all - and please don't send me any more email.

    Just kidding. Sort of.