The Elephant Powder Test and HR

A guy is walking down the road and he comes across an old man sprinkling white powder on the road. He walks up to the old man and the conversation goes something like this

What are you doing?
I’m sprinkling elephant dust
What does that do?
It keeps away elephants
But there aren’t any elephants around here…
I know, it’s really good stuff isn’t it?

At the CIPD Northern Area Partnership Conference last week David Clutterbuck talked about HR bling: the activity we cling to that that is appealing but doesn’t add value. It put me in mind of the old man sprinkling elephant dust, confident in the results, but in reality making no difference. Just expending energy, repeating the same activity and assuming success.

In particular Clutterbuck was scathing of current Talent Management processes, giving an overview of the weakness in correlation between key tools and approaches and actual demonstrable business benefit.

I guess the Elephant Powder Test is about how you can validate that what you are doing is making a difference.

There are probably 3 ways to check whether you are passing the test:

  • Stop doing what you are doing and see if anything really changes. For example remove a policy and see if hell really breaks loose…
  • Understand the initial state so clearly so that you can rapidly understand if a pilot of your work is making a difference
  • Look to external sources to validate your approach (just to be clear, this isn’t doing it because everyone else is doing it, this is doing it because there is evidence it is the right thing to do)

So keep your powder dry and have a think about how you can make sure your activity isn’t just chasing off imaginary elephants.

7 Lessons from The Newsroom

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom‘, despite the fact it is deeply flawed. Maybe I’m drawn to sporadic moments of genius, they seem more fun than the mundane nature of constant genius.

Here are 7 simple lessons drawn from some of the show’s inspired dialogue.

Lesson 1

You don’t need to criticise good people after a mistake. Your job is simply to stop them being too hard on themselves. Time and time again I see bigger damage to overall performance from people’s inability to get over their mistakes than from the initial mistake itself.

Maggie: How come no one’s yelling at me?
Jim: You know how bad you screwed up, right?
Maggie: Yes
Jim: Is there anyone who feels worse than you do?
Maggie: No.
Jim: Then I doubt it’ll ever happen again.

Lesson 2

Learn the difference between what you are doing for people and what you are doing for the business. If you don’t know the difference between people and a business it is explained beautifully here

Mackenzie: What’s the difference between a corporation and a person?
Sloan: Have you ever held a door open for someone?
Mackenzie: Yes.
Sloan: Did you ask them for money first?
Mackenzie: No.
Sloan: That’s the difference.

Lesson 3

Let your good people make interesting mistakes. If people work for you for any period of time they are bound to make errors, help them dodge those deadly bullets

Maggie: that wasn’t what he was actually mad about. The wife of a board member died and Will asked me to send flowers. I wrote on the card, “I’m so sorry about your loss. LOL.
Jim: LOL
Maggie: I thought it meant “lots of love.
Jim: How are you still working here
Maggie: I dodge bullets. Here comes a bullet. Boom! I’m over here. Ping! Here comes another bullet. Boom! I’m over here.

Lesson 4 –

There is an art in effectively managing communication. There is an art in effectively managing change. Just never forget that because you might be able to convince someone of something it doesn’t mean that it is true. That’s a bad test of rightness.

Leona: You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem.

Lesson 5

Despite what I said about lesson 4, being able to rally people and transmit belief remains a useful skill…

Will: How much of what you’re saying do you believe right now?
Charlie: 60%
Will: I thought it was in the mid-80s. You pulled it off.
Charlie: Experience.

Lesson 6

It’s important to isolate failure in part from total failure. Too often we review projects for where we went wrong, ignoring the importance of where we succeeded. Everyone wants to get things 100% right, but someone told me a long time ago that getting 7/10 decisions right is acceptable – and 8 or above is exceptional – and that seems a reasonable rule.

Will: I believe, except for the things we did wrong, we did everything right

Lesson 7

Take time to figure out the stories around you. Every person you see is writing their own story the whole time, every day they are a little bit different – yet too often we see them as fixed. I have no idea what this story is about…

Will: There’s a story about a little kid who keeps shredding paper and his parents take him to all kinds of doctors to get him to stop shredding paper. And finally they take him to the most expensive doctor in the world who turns to the kid and he says, “Kid, if you stop shredding paper, your parents will stop dragging you to doctors.” And the kid turns to his parents and says, “Why didn’t you just say so?
Mac: Well, all right, then
Will: The point of the story is that the kid could make himself happy by just stopping. I think that’s the point. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out

Finally, some thoughts on how quickly you can learn economics from the first series – with some of the laser sharp dialogue that Sorkin does so well

Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

Feedback, Gullibility and The Barnum Statements problem

A new colleague told me last week that the first time that we met I was a complete jerk. They obviously didn’t use the word ‘jerk’, but I sounded ‘jerkish’. It hurt . Aside from the obvious professional concerns some of the things they were describing were things I would hate to have associated with me as a human being. I went away crestfallen, regretful and with my head buzzing full of conflicting sentiments

  • It might have been a one off
  • What if everyone thinks like that?
  • What if not everyone thinks like that – but quite a few do?
  • How many is too many people thinking you are a jerk?
  • Would ‘too many’ be a percentage or a number?
  • What if it is a part of my character that I can’t change?
  • What parts are those?
  • Who do I trust enough to tell me if it is true?

I spent the entire week worrying about it. At times I was sitting down to meetings feeling uncomfortably unsure of myself.

When we talked again this week I asked them again about what I had done and how I had acted.They said that they had met me last year at an event – but when they named the event it turned out that I hadn’t even attended it. It turned out the were thinking about someone else entirely. Moving past the fact that it seems odd George Clooney was attending an HR conference (we often get confused) it shows how unreliable feedback can be.

I still feel like I’ve been a jerk because I’ve spent all week convinced that I had been. In fact I’ve got some things that I’ll do differently even though the feedback turned out to be false. In fact I now have a pretty good mental list of times that I might have acted like a jerk. Which is useful.

My experience of watching people respond to feedback through the years is that truthful feedback is less important to a successful outcome than their desire to respond to feedback. To put it another way – give a person who wants to improve suggestions of things that they can improve and they will. Give someone less committed the complete truth and they will rationalise it away.

Barnum Statements are descriptions that seem tailored for an individual, but actually are generic enough to apply to almost anyone. You could give a set of leaders the same feedback and tell them it was their 360 and they would believe it and act on it.

Try this as your feedback and see how you get on.

  • Sometimes it seems like you spend time on the wrong priorities
  • Occasionally I don’t think you appreciate your impact on others
  • It’s clear sometimes that you are more enthusiastic towards some projects than others
  • You have a tendency to be too critical of yourself
  • I think sometimes you push yourself too hard
  • You have potential to have an even better career
  • I sometimes think you aren’t as confident as you seem to come across
  • I’ve seen some really strong leadership from you and I’d like to see more
  • It seems you like a degree of change, but become less happy when you feel boxed in
  • I’m not sure we always see the real you at work
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic
  • I really find we get on better when you are at your most relaxed
  • I think you are generally a really strong contributor and you know the areas you need to work on

Some examples are from me, some from the original study by Forer. I’m guessing some of the above rang true for most people. it’s worth noting that later research indicated you are more likely to believe this if

  1. you believe the results are specifically about you
  2. if there is a balance of positive and negative examples
  3. if you believe it is from a credible source

Think 360 feedback or the last psychometrics you took and the qualified person giving you feedback.

Feedback – the least important thing is the possibly the truth..

The #HR April Fool Test

At some point I’m going to release a book of organisational tests. But not quite yet.

To tide people over until that momentous event here is the April Fools Day Test for HR.

1. Sit down and work out the silliest email that your HR Department could send to the business that people might believe to be true
2. Spend 10 minutes working out why they might believe you would say or think something that stupid
3. Work out what you need to do differently for the business to believe that you share the same reality and are not stupid…

When people talk about HR having a credibility issue a good way to quantify the gap is to stretch reality until it becomes uncomfortable.

PS. I did this once. We issued a note on April 1st saying due to a health and safety directive we were switching off the lifts to ensure people walked more. If you wanted to take the lift regularly you needed a written business case to be presented to facilities. We had several complaints. That showed our credibility gap…pretty big.


PS I saw this recently. The sign says the office doesn’t give train info. It sort of necessarily does.

The Death of L&D: A Post Mortem

I remember 2015 like it was yesterday, it was such a hopeful time to be around Learning and Development professionals, we stood on the verge of a brave new world, full of change and opportunity. 10 years on and it seems bizarre that we hadn’t seen it coming, that the death of our profession had been so very close – and in some ways so obvious – but we didn’t see the signs. Maybe we just didn’t want to.

The death of HR was being mentioned everywhere, maybe that was the critical thing that distracted us and possibly we felt safe by comparison, it’s hard to tell. HR were trying to be all strategic and the one thing we knew for sure was that people needed to learn if companies were going to grow – and we would be the key to that.  We needed to ‘talk the language of business’ and be ‘better aligned’, but it was a given that there was a requirement for our skills to facilitate learning experiences for others, we were key to the productivity problem. We were adding technology to our expertise in order to make things more accessible and things could hardly look brighter.

When the reports first came out regarding automation of jobs they were something of a curio. It was a good thing to talk about at conferences to show that we were keeping up with external change. The studies were suggesting that almost 25% of jobs could be automated by 2025 – the figure seemed ridiculous and the time frame far too short. If anything this showed the relentless march of technology – and we knew that being tech savvy was an opportunity for us. Google Glass hadn’t quite done what we thought, but gamification was kicking off nicely and we had even started the backlash against it. And nothing says progress like a backlash. Still, even if the working population did decrease we would all be fine in ‘portfolio careers’, moving seamlessly from project to project whilst charging a premium for our expertise.  That’s how things still felt in 2017 when the first automated hotels and restaurants started becoming more common. Initially odd tourist traps in Asia, but then becoming more and more mainstream as they moved from novelty through competitive advantage and then into becoming the only sustainable model.

The reduction in learning teams in the hospitality and leisure sectors meant a surfeit of learning professionals, the first signal that something wasn’t right. After years of talking about skills mismatches we now had an excess of skilled individuals within our profession. Sure, some of them switched to consultancy, but with so many individuals hitting the market in a short period they were working for less than they had been in permanent roles and rates came down across the market. Even then we still hadn’t realised what was coming. We thought at the every least we’d be left with curation.

Google Now’s ability to predict the information people required next (before they even knew) via analysing their search history and contents of their calendar began to be applied within IT systems at work. It was a system that people were comfortable with as their daily hub and that drew on their experience and preferences outside of work as well. As people worked online these complex systems were instantly and automatically pushing people towards sources of learning – websites, articles and knowledge within the organisation. If you had a meeting coming up with the Marketing Team for the first time you could expect a glossary of marketing terms and the opportunity for a premeeting chat with a marketing team member all to be offered seamlessly. All of it automated, none of it requiring a human intervention. We had been curious when Google said that it’s own system had been able to learn, we hadn’t appreciated this would mean it could help others learn better than we could. We had been searching for ways to prove ROI for years, now every performance uplift fed back into the system to refine the information provided to learners. We weren’t even involved.

Matching individuals to mentors, assessing talent and capability, highlighting career opportunities – none of these involved a human intervention. Induction was all system and app based, the learning and development teams were – at best – an adjunct to IT. The first company that invented a system for effectively assessing competency of coaching interventions via webcams and providing instant feedback via an avatar made a lot of money. Then by the early 2020’s it was standard and nobody was making money from that either. Out of 70:20:10 we were rapidly being left with only the 0’s. The new era wasn’t self directed learning, it was code guided learning.

Executive coaching was replaced by peer to peer coaching (with tight confidentially requirements) as the mindset of a new generation of CEO’s focused on sharing learning and comfortable with networks continued to rise and rise. The historic income stream of exec coaching was now largely denied to consultants, meaning that the market was now far too squeezed to sustain the number of individuals seeking work. To work in L&D was now to obviously be the last of near extinct breed, the only respite for individuals still hoping to make money was that people had stopped entering the profession.

The last remaining few of us were relics, meeting online to discuss how we could become more relevant – only without the cushion of 10 years ago and largely without the hope. It wasn’t about speaking the language of business after all – it didn’t matter what we said, the profession was dead and buried.


  • This post was originally written for #Ozlearn, to help provoke a conversation about the future of the L&D profession.
  • The author has already written several pieces complaining about the high number of articles proclaiming things to be ‘dead’, this piece is therefore fundamentally lazy hypocrisy
  • The author has no desire for colleagues to be replaced by robots. Well, at least he has no desire for most of them to be replaced by robots, but thinking about it there are probably 3-4 people that I wouldn’t miss. You know who you are. 
  • Feel free to follow on twitter or connect on Linkedin – apparently the profession won’t exist in a decade so we should probably chat now
  • Apparently the term ‘code guided learning’ doesn’t exist yet. So I’m hoping it takes off and then I can claim to be the person who invented it. On such things our small careers hang.


HR – where it stops and starts

A few weeks ago the kind folks at NZlead invited me to publish a post on collaborative HR. That post can be found here. As part of the post I invited people to contribute to a list of things that HR should start and stop doing in order to keep getting better.

This post is where we ended up… No claims of it being deep or being a fully thought through model – it’s a collection of thoughts and I’d just like to thank those that contributed to it. Please put your thoughts in the comments below.

The original thought to do something this broad came from a debate at Worktech about whether HR had a future. In the picture below you’ll see I’ve made everyone else on the panel either grumpy or despondent. That’s Charles Handy‘s head by the way.


 I think it does have a future and that future looks like some of the things on the right hand side of the list below. I’m delighted that the folks at Worktech have asked me to do the keynote at their first event in Berlin where I’ll be talking about the growing inability of change management programmes to cope with…change. If you are an HR professional and you like the right hand side of this list then there are some things you can start doing today to help others change – just lead and be the change you want to see. 



Complaining about the business and that they ‘just don’t get it’

Taking accountability for bringing the business together to drive results more effectively – and understanding poor decisions made by others are often rooted in you not understanding their problems

Worrying about where your Business Partners should hand over to your Shared Service Centre etc etc

Working with the business to understand what helps the business constantly improve and focusing as much resource as you can there – irrespective of job titles

Worrying about the risks of technology

Planning to ensure your business isn’t left behind – and then crippled by the investment required to catch up

Obsessing about what people will do without you there to guide them

Observing what people do when given space, time and trust and making the most of that

Writing policies in the hope that sheets of paper will magically influence people determined to do bad things

Agreeing the core principles of how you do business and recruiting people who believe in the spirit of what you are trying to do

Worrying about who gets the credit for performance

Creating successes for people to share

Creating stats to show how commercial you are

Doing things to improve the commercial capability of your business – this will involve figures but the intent is fundamentally different

Cleaning up the mess

Helping people understand how to clean up their own mess –and to make the most of the mess. There will always be mess, but great companies  turn mistakes into progress

Viewing your role as risk minimisation

Viewing your role as one of enabling performance – and thereby minimising risk of your business being competed out of the market

Worrying about what HR do

(with the exception of this blog)

Worrying about what the business needs to do and recognising that as soon as HR stands apart from ‘the business’ it can’t be at the heart of the business

Being the keeper of secrets

Being the most open department (within legal limits…). Asking for help instead of hiding problems.

Talking about collaboration

Involving more people in decisions and only laying down the law where you really need to. People being  100% committed and with an 80% correct decision  nearly always beats 100% right but with 20% of people working against you

Reading articles on how HR should work in some imaginary world where things work smoothly

Opening the question of how HR should work at your organisation up to people all across your organisation. If the above doesn’t work for your organisation that’s ok.

Blaming Operational Managers for not executing your initiatives.

Understanding their problems and selling the importance of the initiatives. If you cannot, they are probably not as important as you think.

Attempting to put HR at the centre of the relationship between the company and its employees.

Create the right tools.  Advise, guide, coach, support, train.  Then get out of the way.

With the whole slave to Ulrich thing unless your organisation is either a) pretty darn big, or b) global.

establishing what is the right approach for your particular organisation.

HR and Britpop

Before Christmas I wrote a blog specifically on The Wonderstuff that turned out to be quite popular. That was unexpected.

I’m a lover of good lyrics and still have that slightly ‘teenage’ habit of listening for ‘meaning’ in lyrics. Sofor this blog I’ve run a Genius Playlist on my iPod and picked out some lyrics applicable to HR/OD and organisations.

Your challenge? Put down your guesses as to which songs they come from in the comments below….The prize for the first person to name them all without resorting to Google? A Mars bar.

I’ve had enough of lining pockets I’ve never met  – a lovely reminder on the importance of visible leadership and meaningful work. Who and what are people working for each day? The answer is almost always a little bit money, but then what…Dodgy – Staying out for the Summer

Everybody hates a tourist – if you are going to work with people then make sure you really work with people. It is never a thought experiment – it is real for them and real for their families and real for their careers – even when you move on. It is never a game (even if it is gamified).Pulp – Common People

All I ever wanted was the chance to learn from my mistakes, funny how you never learn but know them when they come around again – we all make bold statements about ‘ never making the same mistake twice’ but I guarantee every person reading this has made lots of mistakes that, on reflection, are very familiar. We like to think we learn – in truth our weaknesses tend to pop up as often as our strengths. Make peace with that or deal with that – just don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Echobelly – Great Things

You don’t have to have the solution, you’ve got to understand the problem and don’t go hoping for a miracle – a timely reminder that if you don’t understand the problem fully you haven’t even achieved the first step of resolving it. Also that we work in a practical profession – dream big about the future by all means, but act in ways that have an impact on the here and now. The best theory is the one that actually works. The Bluetones – Slight Return

I spend so much time wondering why I’ve got an opinion… – the ability to create ideas is key to being able to create competitive advantage. Make sure you listen – make sure you value the opinions of people around you. Yours only ever counts once. Supergrass -Richard III

Don’t you think that life would be a little drab if we had the same thoughts – it’s easy to drift through your working day thinking that your role is to influence people to get them to understand your point of view. It’s more productive to blend that with understanding theirs – who knows, maybe you aren’t right 100% of the time? Cast – Finetime

No challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style – it’s your choice how you approach work. I quite like the above phrase as a suggestion of how to face the working day. If anybody asks you ‘would you rather be liked or respected?’ then just explain to them it is a false choice. Explain they shouldn’t assume that their inability to be able to be both means that you face the same choice. I’m guessing they don’t feel very liked – it is only people who are disliked who ever pose this question. The Bluetones – Bluetonic

Just what is it that you want to do? We wanna be free. We wanna be free to do what we want to do – which leads me neatly onto this video…Primal Scream – Free (but all credit to Broc – see his reference to the original source in the comments)