Help me shape something

I’ve got a speech coming up next month with the following synopsis having been given to delegates. I’d like you all to be my coaches and guides.

“David will explore the diminishing relevance of attempts to influence behaviour through traditional change management techniques – and the risks that are inherent in managing change within an organisation with a script, whilst the world itself continues to surprise. David will link subjects as diverse as Winnie(-die-)Puuh (Winnie the Pooh), nudge theory and the architecture of the British Embassy to explore how, why and if organisations can change people as fast as the world itself does.”

I’m going to use my blog to map out my thoughts and, essentially, share my preparation notes with people – and put them up for challenge.

If you leave comments or suggestions and I use them you’ll get namechecked and I’ll owe you a coffee. I’m also open to suggestions over anything in terms of format that could be shaken up.

I’ve only got 25 minutes. My current thinking is to ignore all current thinking on death by PowerPoint and try and do 50 Haiku deck slides, taking people on a journey of small steps at pace. That’s the first thing up for debate.

I don’t want them to take 3 things away. I want them to take 100 questions away. I want everyone to grab at different content and concepts from a pick and mix of material. So that is the first thing it would be good to get feedback on. I’m not stupid, I see plenty of downsides, I may not follow your advice – but don’t think I won’t listen.

Thanks to Sukh who made me think about doing this differently (or the same thing but on turbo). Please note: my fortune cookie says I have the style and panache to carry this off.


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Help needed (part 2)

The last post seems quite popular – but it felt like posturing. It isn’t.

Occasionally I wonder if people think bloggers have never put anything into an organisation that they talk about. Whether this stuff works in the real world. Here is a copy of what my team did to help understand its purpose and to help the business understand what it did – that I’ve pulled out of an email from 2011. I’ve done this stuff…I’d write it more simply now – but this stuff does work (and we wrote it together so its not all my fault).

How does the Organisational Development Team help the business to perform? 

1.     Help the business to maintain legal compliance in the areas we impact (what does it look like: effectively following our process and legal requirements, highlighting breaches, maintaining employment policy compliance)

2.     Help the business get better immediate and long term performance from its people through using data and insight (what does it look like: providing data that highlights links between behaviour and performance)

3.     We provide tools to the business that help develop people and enhance performance (what does it look like: 360, Engagement, Visits, Post case review)

4.     Help bring talented people into the business (what does it look like: supporting Job Design and administering the recruitment process)

5.     Help to improve business structure and processes, providing advice, guidance and challenge and supporting change (what does it look like: reviewing team structures in partnership with business areas, reviewing disciplinary cases to ensure we learn from them)

6.     Help managers and leaders  have conversations that help drive performance and development (what does it look like:. the Management Toolkit, coaching & supporting managers through the performance management process)

7.     Help recruit, support and identify talent (what does it look like: maintain the talent definitions and use the data to highlight opportunity)

8.     Help people make the right decisions for themselves, the business, our customers and our people (what does it look like: the way we work, pushing for the right result all of the time)


Help needed

The following are a series of disturbing reports all taken from It’s my most reliable source.

“The guy was obviously struggling to keep afloat. He was out of his depth and his head kept disappearing below the surface. He was calling out for help, but this HR professional was standing on the side of the lake and just kept on asking him how he thought he got into this situation in the first place. He pointed to a life buoy at the side of the lake, but they told him that, without understanding the root cause of his drowning, they couldn’t really help. After a while he went under and didn’t come back up. The HR guy muttered something about the leadership team needing to take more accountability and went off for a coffee”

“It just shocked me. I went to HR and said ‘I could do with some help’ and they told me that they wouldn’t help me unless I could clearly articulate what I meant by the word ‘help’. I said ‘this isn’t very helpful’ and they looked at me like I was talking a different language. We ended up with me having a far reaching conversation about ‘strengths based leadership techniques’ and their relation to ‘values centric competency models’ – when I just wanted to know why I’d been paid less this month”

“I went to the doctor and said I’d been having some health problems and was hoping he could help. He explained that if he did help I’d be building some kind of dependency on him, so he’d rather just ask me some open questions and then I’d still be responsible for my health. He said help was a bit of a scary word as he couldn’t tell if he’d actually helped for certain for a number of years.”

Help isn’t a dangerous word. It isn’t a weak word – most honest conversations and most brave conversations come from our conviction to help. It’s a powerful word. We all have enough of a common understanding of it that it baffles me that we spend any time defining our language around it – or that there is any challenge in using it. We all understand the following language

  • Do you know what? That chat we had the other day really helped
  • Dave, you really aren’t helping the situation
  • I’m swamped and I could do with some help
  • Is what I’m doing helpful or not?
  • I was genuinely trying to be helpful
  • I know you think you are helping – but you’re not
  • Help

It should be a common language for the profession. It should anchor us. Simple, jargon free, understood by all. We help people and organisations understand and realise their ambitions. We help shape their ambitions. We intend to help and we try to help. Sometimes we don’t help. Most subjective concepts have wriggle room for failure.

When my daughter tells me she loves me I don’t ask her to define it before I accept it. There are concepts that are universal enough for us all to plug into. This is one of them. Any word we use varies slightly in interpretation, but sometimes we need to look for the commonality rather then difference. Sometimes we need to be pragmatic and say – I pretty much know what you mean. We shy away from using  ‘help’ but we think the following terms are acceptable:

  • competency framework
  • onboarding
  • downsizing
  • EQ
  • organisational intervention
  • coaching/mentoring
  • blended learning

Some of the conversations I’ve been in recently have been around whether help is an appropriate word to describe what we do. I haven’t heard a word yet that helps people better understand what good HR is. It helps. Everything else that anyone substitutes in seems just like an attempt to not use the word ‘help’.

Some of the conversations have been more about ‘who decides what is helpful?’. That doesn’t matter – anymore than it matters who decides what is useful, best or most sensible or whether they have been coached. There is intent and outcome – the bit in the middle is helping (or trying to). If you get an organisation of people trying to help each other you won’t go far wrong.

‘Servant leadership’ = people wanting to help each other

Excellent customer Service = people wanting to help customers

Coaching = helping people improve.

We’ll all have a different view of exactly of what a word means, but we know what it isn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

Go and find people to help. Do good. That’s enough. Move to action. Reflecting too much on meaning isn’t helpful to being meaningful.

Help. It’s what we do. Hope that’s helped clear things up.

(by the way, if you ever do want to define want counts as help then Edgar Schein had a good go – something people can’t see or do for themselves.

And I appreciate that some of the descriptions of other people’s positions on this issue may have been fictionalised or exaggerated, but since my last post included a complaint about crudely polarising positions I’m genuinely revelling in the hypocrisy)

The 7 deadly sucks of HR

I wrote a recent blog on positive things people have said to me that stuck throughout my career. Someone suggested I should do one on things that suck. Due to the way blogging works I imagine this one will be more popular

HR – sometimes – in the words of Bart Simpson ‘both sucks AND blows’

1. When we hide behind process. I recently heard about someone finding out their redundancy period was being ended early via the brilliant communication method of their HR partner emailing them the redundancy policy with the appropriate section having been highlighted. Technically correct? Possibly. Gutless and petty? Yep. That’s not just poor HR, that is poor human interaction

2. When we fail to think like real people. For example ‘Why on earth can’t line managers get things back to us on time?’ The standard answer to this seems to be because they just don’t care. Not enough people take the leap to actually ask i) should they care? ii) why do we care? iii) is it worth getting upset about? iv) what else have they got on their plate? v) how easy have we made this? vi) is that a problem for the business or for our deadline? Are they the same thing? Why not?

3. When we claim success that isn’t ours. We all laugh when we see the candidates on The Apprentice having their CVs dissected in the final rounds as their achievements are held up to scrutiny. The truth is if we added up all the ROI that we claim as a profession (trainers… I’m looking at you) everybody would be working for a company bigger than Google and there wouldn’t be a recession. I once had a £1.3 million saving attributed to my employee retention work over a year. I don’t for one second think I actually saved that, but it looked good in the report. Guilty as charged. I know a significant company which has an HR department claiming great success for its internal social network. 20000 plus staff – only 70 on the platform, 50 of those from HR…

4. When we talk about theory – without recourse to real life. I don’t really give a flying duck about which coaching model you use as long as it works. I don’t care about the difference between coaching and mentoring – as long as people are getting what they need. I sure as hell don’t care about how many boxes you are putting in your model unless you can do something useful with the contents. The infuriating conversations that don’t drive anything (except academic TopTrumps) are simply posturing. I’m occasionally guilty of this (and most things in this piece).  Just find something that works for your business – do it. Which coaching method/change model to use is not a deep moral or ethical question, it is preference and context. We have tools – if more than one does a job well then that is a good thing. Move on.

5. When we don’t eat our own dogfood. Get tools, use those tools, make a difference, refine tools – it isn’t more complex than that. Policy keeps things static, actions keep things moving.  This is basic stuff. Don’t sit in your own office, isolated, trying to work out how to improve cross functional working – it even sounds silly when you describe it that way.

If you design a process then you must follow the process or kill the process. If you want people to be tough on absence then be tough on absence in HR. If you want people to address performance issues proactively then deal with your own performance problems first. If you want to create a coaching culture then be a bloody good coach. We don’t prescribe stuff for the business, we either believe in it enough to do it ourselves or we should be thinking twice about putting it out there in the first place. Eat your own dogfood – if you won’t, don’t expect others to.

6. When we overly generalise or polarise to make our point. Of course I don’t believe in no policy or structure. I’m not an idiot. So please refrain from thinking of me as a crazy impractical anarchist for suggesting we turn down the rulemaking dial… just a little bit.

The ‘how good should HR people be with data’ debate is an example of this. Do I think HR people should be able to use Excel? Yes. Do I think they should spend all day looking at spreadsheets? No. Do I think there should be an advanced test using VB to write macros as part of the recruitment process? No. Most choices aren’t binary and shouldn’t be presented as such – if we are dealing with complex things then let’s make them as simple as we can, by all means, but in HR we have a horrible habit of mainly simplifying the argument of just the other side. It doesn’t help either side. If you were in the HR numeracy debate you probably think I’ve crudely polarised your position – tricky isn’t it?

7. When we use overly complex language or (even worse) complain when other people use simple language. I’m expecting complaints about use of the word sucks and a host of people interpreting this blog as me stating everything about HR is wrong. It isn’t – but not everything about HR is right and therein lies the opportunity. I’d rather err on the side of ‘what more can we do?’ than ‘I think we’re fine’.

I think ‘we’re fine’ rarely drives progress. Some bits of HR and some people in HR still suck AND blow in their behaviours. It’s straightforward and I’d rather call it in that language than a ‘long term competency challenge’. Ongoing suckiness is an issue that nobody benefits from ignoring. Complacency stems from a defensive position. That’s a bad place for anyone in any profession to be.


HR: the movie

Another of my early blogs (rerun to buy me time to get on top of the new book)

A recent Twitter exchange prompted a suggestion that HR should have its own movie. Technically it already has but for some reason, it failed to capture the imagination. So conversation rapidly turned to what a movie with HR in a starring role might look like. I’m willing to option the rights to these crackers for a very reasonable price. If you have any further suggestions then please leave them in the comments box.

Plot 1 – The Facilitator

Tom Smith is the best at what he does. A superspy, trained to kill – deadly in close quarters combat and one of the world’s greatest marksmen -yet Tom has a number of challenging behaviours that make him an unpopular member of the team.  What we need is a brave HR pro willing to coach, a seasoned veteran of away days ready to talk tough to the world’s toughest man and to facilitate tricky conversations with colleagues. Under pressure.

Plot 2 – Performance Gridiron

A ragtag High School football team made up of misfits and a star quarterback (who will doubtless be emotionally damaged by something that happened in his past, probably his father being a previous talented footballer whose career ending injury turned him to drink) , is crying out for an online Performance Management system. Will they get the system implemented in time to see them through to the play offs? Will they be able to make the most of the data whilst still retaining an understanding of the people dynamics? Will it integrate fully with their current systems to provide an effective single solution for the team?

Plot 3 – Final Decision

Tommy was a family man, trying to get by by living honestly in the tough neighbourhood he was raised in .After his release from prison for a crime he didn’t commit – or possibly did commit (but under a level of duress that makes us all feel sorry for him) – one question remains:  who’ll administer his CRB check? Who will decide whether Tommy gets one more chance at rebuilding his life. The final decision rests with HR.

Plot 5 – Critical Impact 

An asteroid is plummeting towards earth. If it hits it is likely we will be destroyed as a species. The US government is our only hope, because in these situations apparently all of the other governments just give up. We know we need the best of the best of the best of the best. We know that these men (and possibly one attractive woman) live on the fringes of acceptability. We know they have an unparalleled skill set and they are our only hope. But the real question is: who will choose the tools that will establish as to whether they are a good cultural fit for our organisation? Who is the best of the best at choosing the best of the best of the best

Plot 6 – The Lord of The  Admins: A long road home

This 79 hour movie trilogy (148 hours in the special edition, 273 hours in the HR Director’s cut – sorry, restructure) features a loose group of heroes facing an unimaginable evil that threatens to plunge their world into darkness forever. The story is told from the point of view of a payroll administrator, chronicling their arduous attempts to get payoll to reconcile whilst fighting off Orcs, and dealing with tax code queries that only they can resolve.

Plot 7 – Finding Nemo (thanks to Ryan Cheyne)

Nemo is the one genuine talent in a large monolithic corporation. A fish with plenty of potential to grow, but currently swimming in an ocean of mediocrity. The film features the endeavours of Marvin the HR professional and his many adventures with talent grids and forced ranking to finally find Nemo – and plaice him on a high potential programme. If you swim with the shoal it’s hard to stand out. If you swim with the sharks you better take care!

If you haven’t seen the best actual workplace films some clips are below

Up in the air – contains moderate swearing – but incredible messaging

Office Space  – really, well worth a watch

HR/life – 10 golden nuggets

Since I’m away for the week I thought I’d lazily schedule a blog that most readers won’t have seen…it will seem like I’ve written something new, whereas in fact I’ve been hanging out with Mickey Mouse.

Throughout your career you have people and moments that stick with you. 

There are also words and concepts that stick with you too and I’ve compiled my Top 10 in this blog. Feel free to add yours in the Blog comments or through Twitter.

I have included a couple of my own in there, in the distant hope that in 20 years somebody quotes one back to me…and I can explain that I came up with it. And they’ll deny it and I’ll produce this Blog in a moment of absolute triumph. 

10 gems of wisdom

You can’t fat the calf just by weighing it

My very first HR Manager taught me this bit of wisdom early in my career. Seeing a problem is only useful if you take action. Now, whenever I hear someone explain their engagement strategy in terms of the survey – rather than the actions – I always think of her fondly.

I’m going to paint you a picture so large that you can walk straight into it

The same Manager used to say this – and what followed was always wonderfully vivid context, bringing to life the challenge at hand

Cold assessment of the facts, warm development of behaviours

I love this mantra, as it perfectly couples the fact that you need to be clinical in your assessment of what is going on, but with a commitment to dealing with issues in a human way. 

Credit where credit is due, not credit where credit is available

I may have overheard it,  but I remember the first time I used this when a member of my team described a piece of a work that they had contributed to but as if it was all their own. I was pleased with their input, not their attitude to sharing success. I let them know.

The most valuable thing someone has to give is their time

You only get to live this life once. If someone gives you the gift of their time make sure you appreciate it and respect it. Someone offered this gem when we were waiting for a colleague who was always late for meetings. What someone who is regularly late is really saying is “my life is more important than yours and I don’t value your time”.

Sometimes to change the people, you have to just change people 

Sometimes cultural change isn’t about who you take with you – it’s also about who leaves and who comes in. We can get trapped in the lovely development and intervention planning and forget about the tough choices which could make things better for everyone

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

It isn’t an original quote, but this was a timely shot across the bows for me a few years ago and made me more mindful of my impact on others. 

No company ever got great due to the strength of their paperwork, but plenty have on the strength of conversations

I was having a debate with an MD on Performance Management paperwork. I was explaining that I wasn’t concerned about completing paperwork by a deadline, because completed performance paperwork that has no significant business outcome – I was concerned that we were missing opportunities to improve through coaching and the lack of paperwork was a symptom. If you are going to be a tick box manager then make sure the box you are ticking is ‘be excellent’ and not ‘met deadline’.

Don’t poke the bear and don’t ignore the elephant in the room

A combined animal quote, requiring you to balance an elephant and bear – you should manage your stakeholders well and not get into unnecessary arguments, but never be afraid to say what other people are afraid to. It is always your job to say what other people are afraid to. That is how you keep pushing for excellence.

I think your main development area is that you need to shave

I admit this isn’t a normal one to crop up in a list like this – and I didn’t expect it to crop up in my annual review. I hate shaving, but it turned out the senior team had me pegged as some kind of hairy anarchist due to a stubbly beard. A quick visit from Mr Gillette and suddenly Directors were stopping me in the corridor to say how smart I looked – and I was being mentored by the MD, with him stating that my shaving showed a willingness to change. 

It always reminds me that I had one development area that I didn’t think was important  – but what mattered was that everyone else did.

Update with further contributions (I can take no credit for these)

“organisations are perfectly designed for the results that they achieve” – @ChangeContinuum


Flappy bird and business

Last night I discovered a mobile game called Flappy Bird. When I say that ‘I discovered it’ what I mean is I gave in to temptation and downloaded the same thing that every else has. The game that is sitting on top of the charts for both iPhone and Android. Lesson: people follow crowds. We assume there is value where other people have found value

Upon starting the game it became clear that there was only really one game mechanic at play. Press your screen to flap your birds wings. This is interesting to me because games have been getting more complicated over recent years and focusing on the continual ‘upgrading’ of capabilities. Think new combos/sweets in Candy Crush. Flappy Bird just asks you to do one thing well Lesson: when everyone else is creating complexity, simplicity can be refreshing

The one aim of the game is to not die and keep moving. This is a pretty compelling goal and you score points for every obstacle you fly through. When I started I was delighted to get past 3-4. Now I’m chasing progressively higher scores and slightly disgusted when I don’t hit double figures. I need to be pushing on and increasing my High score Lesson: we value progress, what looked big to us yesterday looks small to us today.

The obstacles in the game are generated randomly. The easiest way to get a high score is to be lucky and have several obstacles appear that don’t need you to adjust your height. If the obstacles are randomly generated so you have to move about too much you are more likely to die. Lesson: success is a function of randomness and luck. Don’t kid yourself that it isn’t, but equip yourself to be able to fly well enough to make good when it’s possible


As soon as I hit what I thought was a reasonably high score I checked online to see what other people were scoring Lesson: our sense of progress and achievement is normally grounded in how we have done relative to others.

Now I have scored a decent amount I wanted to share it, I wouldn’t have done that when I wasn’t doing so well. Lesson: I’m a show off. Bring it on. People share their achievements selectively


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