HR, you don’t need an app for that

For Christmas I asked/begged for a gps running watch and I absolutely love it. It looks good, is super easy to use, it tracks and records my runs, the display is customizable to show the info most important to me, it syncs to a website that syncs to my phone, and I’d highly recommend it to other runners.

BUT it’s an indulgence. It’s unnecessary. It’s a tool of convenience, but far from a requirement. It, and the entire infrastructure build around it (website, apps, etc.), can be replaced with a $6 stopwatch and a $1 notebook. Most importantly, IT DOESN’T RUN FOR ME. It enhances the habit I already have; it doesn’t instill new habits. (Anyone ever buy a time management app, PDA, software, or scheduler thinking it would make you effective with your time and discover that it, um, didn’t?)

Yesterday, I saw a  post on called 2014: The Year Social HR Matters. This piece has some good thoughts, but really got me thinking because there is a section that describes social data as enabling companies to rethink the performance review. To quote in small part:

“…some companies are going one-step further to create a new process focusing on having a “Check-In”. The software company Adobe now relies on managers controlling how often and in what form they provide feedback. The Check-In is an informal system of real-time feedback, which has no forms to fill out or submit to HR.

Instead, managers are trained in how to conduct a check-in and how to focus the conversation on key goals, objectives, development and strategies for improvement…”

I am 100% for this. Only… Only, it’s exactly what I thought managers were already supposed to be doing. Why do we need an app, software, or electronic gizmo to practice fundamentals of good management? Are companies really waiting for the technology to be in place before having actually conversations with their people? Could they not manage without big data? Like my watch, there may really cool ways of using social data to help us do what we’re already doing even better, but IT WON’T MANAGE FOR US.

The world seems rife with HR vendors trying to sell this dream, trying to convince us that the tools do the work instead of helping us do the work better. And that is a very key distinction. The hammer in my toolbox won’t build the house for me, but it will help me build the house faster and easier than without it. The performance management system won’t have the tough conversation with employees – at best it will make it easier for managers to have more conversations and provide more and better feedback. Applicant tracking software makes it easier for us to stay on top of things and provide a better candidate experience, but it doesn’t do it for us. We can gamify and automate employee recognition, but the most impactful employee recognition event I’ve seen cost a total of $20 and used nothing more sophisticated than a word processor and strapping tape.

My point is simply that the apps, software, etc. are (can be) great enhancements to what we are doing. But there is no point in waiting to purchase them to get started with providing better training to managers, better experience to candidates, better recognition, better HR, etc. etc.  There is a real danger to thinking that technology and data offers one size fits all silver bullet panacea that will magically and effortlessly solve all the problems.

With the right intention and approach these things can be done very low tech and still have meaningful impact and results. With the wrong intention and approach it’ll still suck despite all the technology and money we throw at it.

The watch is cool, but worthless if I don’t actually do the running.

ignoring the success stories

There’s two kinds of business success stories that everyone talks about and then learns nothing from.

The first is the upstart business that is just doing things disruptively different. Their organizational structure and processes go against the cookie cutter business school best practices. Companies like Valve with its completely flat org chart and BrewDog with their “Equity for Punks” customer ownership program come to mind. We all marvel at their ingenuity and then insist that it’ll never work anywhere else or dismiss it as being only viable for startups. We think that putting meaning or innovation ahead of the Wall Street Quarterly Numbers Game is somehow poor business.

The other is the upstart that hits it big: Apple, Amazon, Google, Zappos. We churn out the stories about their cultures and benefits and all the quirks of their leaders and then promptly focus on all the wrong lessons. Tire swings in the lobby won’t give you Google’s profit margins. Being weird for the sake of weird won’t give you Zappos’ customer retention. And wearing turtlenecks and screaming at people won’t give you Apple’s innovation and iconic status.

Steve Jobs’ gift wasn’t for leadership. His brilliance was in his unrelenting focus on design and the customer above all else. He thought long term and insisted on getting right all the details that no one else realized were details. I believe the single most important lesson we can take from Steve Jobs legacy is summed up in a quote from him:

“If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profit will follow.”

This could be re-written for Zappos, just replace “product” with “customer service”. Or for any of the businesses, big or small, that succeed doing things disruptively different.

The magic “different” is almost always a relentless priority focus on creating meaningful products or services that customers value, love, and rally behind. Profits are important but seen more as a way to keep the doors open and create better products and services versus the end all be all. Profits are a means, not an end.

We admire the innovation, the ingenuity, and – yes – their profitability and then we all go back to focusing on profits over products, dollars over meaning, creating unhealthy dysfunction and disorder.

Consider it this way. Elite athletes are thin, skinny even, but not because they want to look like runway models. Athletes aren’t lean out of fashion or vanity; they are lean out of necessity. Extra weight on an athlete isn’t unattractive, it’s a crucial few extra hundredths of a second, it’s reduced performance, it’s finishing second. Being lean is the byproduct of focusing relentlessly on fitness and performance; it’s the means, not the end.

But what if we, in our emulation of athletes, got it backwards? What if we just focused on being thin first and foremost and slashed our calorie intake to survival levels? If an athlete were to focus on being supermodel thin, their performance would drop immediately and drastically. They wouldn’t have the necessary muscle to perform and the muscles they did have wouldn’t be receiving enough fuel to excel or even train and develop.

Now, let’s look back at companies. We want companies to perform at the highest level, but so often we focus on profits as the end rather than the byproduct of performance. It’s when we get those confused that the problems start.

We start cutting expenses to the bone and don’t invest in the things we need to be profitable in the future. No athlete in the world would stop training because they were worried that the muscle they were adding would hurt performance. Yet, one of the first things cut in organizations is learning and development. When performance is down, we eliminate one resource that helps improve performance (whaaaa?). The next to go is staff – those people who create, deliver, and support the products and service the customer pays for). So we end up with fewer people who are less skilled and somehow consider that better than having more people who are more skilled. (Please show me one successful sports team that’s run this way. Just one.)

Or we start binging and purging with hiring and layoffs. We focus on the image in the mirror (or in the spreadsheets) instead of how fit and healthy we are. We get corporate liposuction by selling off assets or radically cutting costs, making the company look good temporarily but without addressing the long-term decisions and habits that made the company overweight or underperforming in the first place.

We start asking, “What costs can we cut?” instead of “What resources should we invest more in?” We ask, “What can we offer that we can charge the customer more for?” instead of “What would our customers really value?” We ask, “How can we improve our numbers this quarter?” instead of “What do we need to do to be a thriving company ten years from now?”

Company performance and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive. Done right, profits help us create even more meaning, leading to more profits. Done wrong, a singular focus on profits kills meaning and, ironically, hurts long-term performance.

It’s fascinating how we have examples of the philosophies and attitudes that help create standout companies. We study them, give them a hero’s status, and then quietly return to doing what everyone else is doing.

What thinks you?


comfort zones are so… comfortable

Us humans can talk about pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box, or getting outside of comfort zones all we want. Deep down we know that there is no growth, development, change, or improvement without discomfort. But we hate that. We really do. We want to believe the marketing hype that says change and improvement is easy and effortless and fun.

Picture a cold, wet, stormy winter night and you’re snuggled in a soft, plush, fleecy blanket by the fire while drinking hot chocolate and watching your favorite movie. That’s your comfort zone – it’s all warm, cozy, and oh so gloriously relaxing.

Now, picture that same winter night and your spouse comes into the room and inexplicably yanks the blanket off, turns on all the fans and A/C, and changes the channel. THAT’S what stretching your comfort zone feels like. Not life threatening, just really, really irritating. And we want to fix it immediately and return to our blissful cocoon.

Deep down inside the lizard brain we’re wired to avoid discomfort. It’s a survival trait that goes to the roots of our existence. Hypothermia, starvation, and injury are kind of a big deal when you’re 75,000 years from the nearest heated house, stocked fridge, and health clinic. Pain is a fabulous instructor because it teaches us to not do things that might result in injury, dismemberment, or death.

The problem is, we’re also wired to survive one more day. Our lizard brain only worries about right now, not 20 years out. The mechanisms that keep us from freezing or starving to death don’t work well to protect us from the long term dangers brought about by sloth, overconsumption, or NOT changing with the world. Our bodies are great at telling us to eat, but not so good at telling us to back off; great at teaching us not to stick our hands in the fire, but lousy at encouraging us to seek out new skills, knowledge, and people.

Related to all this, us humans also hate, hate, hate to be denied something we want. It becomes a tickle in the brain that we’re soon obsessing over until we HAVE TO HAVE IT!!!! Again, it’s a great survival trait when our bodies are trying to get us to go hunt something so we can eat for another day, but counterproductive when we’re trying to create long term behavioral change like eating less, saving more, getting up earlier, learning new skills, etc.

The longer we stay in our comfort zone, the more it starts to shrink. We step back from the edge to provide a cushion of comfort and the edge moves inward. So we step back again. Pretty soon we find we’ve trapped ourselves in a very small, very tiny, very restrictive place. And we wonder why our lives and careers aren’t where we want them.

Worse, yet. When faced with danger – physical, emotional, mental – we retreat to what we know. The more uncertain the situation, the more dogmatically and desperately we cling to the things we are certain about. Ironically, the moments we need to change the most are the moments we are most resistant to change.

All of this has huge implications for leading change, training and development, and personal and professional growth. It’s not that we can’t or won’t push on those self-imposed boundaries, it’s just that we’re highly resistant to discomfort.

How often do we put off the diet or fitness or savings plans until “tomorrow”? How often do we delay going back to school or seeking out new training until “the time is right”? How often do we dangerously delay important decisions until we “have more information”? How often do we dismiss new approaches out of hand, preferring to stick to “tried and true” and “best practices”?

What thinks you?


FutureNow of work?

You keep using the word ‘FutureNow’ – what does that mean?” A fair question. It’s a term I made up to describe where work is heading. I’m very intrigued by social businesses and democratic workplaces and started describing them as the future of work that’s already happening right now.

As an example, in 2009, smart phones were the FutureNow of mobiles phones. To many of us they seemed like overpriced toys, yet became ubiquitous in only a couple of years. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to see how and why the smart phones were the future.

The same could be said of any technological advancement. MP3 players in, say 2002. Email in 1996. Television in 1947. Automobiles in 1913. Etc., etc. All these were the FutureNow when they first came out. But we can look back at societal progress as well and there were some hard fought advances that are now seen as normal and natural to the majority of folks.

Two hundred years ago, we were trying to figure out how to make a democratic government work well (and the cynics will make a strong case that we’re still trying to figure it out). Today it just seems obvious and natural (to those in a democracy) that democracy is the way to go. Battles and wars are fought to replace dictators with voters.

I find it interesting that there is such a strong, common belief that democracy is the best way to organize a country, yet we balk at the idea of a democratic workplace. So much of business is still stuck in the authoritarian, patriarchal (ugh!), top down, command and control ways of the past. It feels weird to question and ask about other organizational structures. It might even seem a bit anarchistic or just counterculture hippie to suggest that maybe, just maybe, businesses could benefit from and improve on the democratic practices that run entire nations.

More on this later. In the meantime, just be aware that the future is already here and doing some really cool, innovative things. What’s strange today will be obvious tomorrow.

what if people mattered?

Imagine with me for a moment…

What if people mattered to the success of a business?

What if people were a crucial part of delighting customers and ensuring return business?

What if people were necessary to create and invent and innovate?

What if people used their experience and judgment to make decisions that affect outcomes?

What if people each had their own strengths, weaknesses, goodness, and extremes?

What if people each had their own interests, dreams, desires, and constraints?

What if people weren’t all the same and couldn’t be removed and replaced like gears on a machine?

What if people were sometimes employees, sometimes shareholders, or sometimes customers? What if they were sometimes all three at once?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to brilliance?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to disaster?

What if people had their own lives going on and didn’t live or die for the organization?

What if people weren’t all like you?

What if people were different and that difference might create strife, conflict, chaos, energy, synergy, and great leaps forward?

What if people had uniqueness that was both their biggest strength and worst weakness?

What if people were necessary to get work done?

What if people need businesses less than businesses need people?

What if people were required to interpret data and make decisions and take actions based on sound judgment, intuition, and wild guesses?

What if people invented and built all the technology that changes business?

What if people wanted to feel safe, respected, liked, and valued?

What if people made decisions and took actions based on their feelings and emotions and only used logic and reasoning to justify their decisions and actions?

What if people didn’t always act in their own best interests?

What if people sometimes do stupid things?

What if people were more loyal to people than to the initials inc., llc., gmbh., or ltd.?

What if people and the relationships they have with other people generated more business than spreadsheets?

What if people were necessary to dream up, make, deliver, and improve the products and services your business sells?

What if people were a crucial part of creating compelling messages, attracting and assisting customers, and growing the business?

We’re still just imagining here… But what if some – any – of this were actually true? What if people, in all their complex, irrational, unpredictable, humanness, were actually crucial to business results?

Would that change the emphasis on how much effort you put into finding and hiring the right people?

Would you put a different level of priority on your efforts to develop and improve the people you invested in by hiring?

Would the employee experience become important?

Or, if you knew people were actually a prime competitive advantage, would you pretend they weren’t and spend your time, energy, and money on other things?

what’s the purpose of a business?

A philosophical question for you this morning: what’s the purpose of a business? The business school answer is simply to make as much money as possible for the shareholders. I’m not convinced.

The concept of a “business” is fairly new in terms of human history. For most of our time on this planet we survived with the very simple job title of “hunter/gatherer”. I imagine the division of labor was pretty simple – “you stab stuff, I’ll try to find plants, we’ll get back together tonight and see if we get to eat.” Organizations existed at the tribe level and the mission statement was: “Trying to live for one more day.”

Then, 10,000 years ago (give or take a weekend) agriculture was invented. People could stay in one place and a more stable food supply allowed people specialize in a craft. Occupations arose and business was born. People moved past daily survival and were able to amass a cushion of resources that allowed them to prosper (long-term survival). Then we spent the next 10 millennia taking a very simple concept (survival) and turning it into something really, stupidly complicated (business).

We tend to think of organizations as something sterile and separate from their founders. We forget that the people who started the business, started that specific business for a very particular reason. When we look at the biggest businesses today, chances are very high that their founders started them NOT because they thought it would be the highest return on their money but because they were hoping to make money (survive and prosper) doing something they found interesting. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Michael Dell, Edison, etc., etc. started in garages and dorm rooms building cool stuff. Or at least stuff they thought was cool. There was sweat, emotion, passion, and wonder as they figured out how to make money doing the things they were fascinated by.

Think of your own career. Why do you do what you do? Chances are you didn’t choose a field based solely on annual salary. You may not even be in a field that you started in or even knew about when you were deciding what to do when you grew up. When you decided on (or stumbled into) a career it was probably based on many things in addition money. Face it, if we were ONLY about the bucks, we’d all be hedge fund managers, drug lords, or working on oil rigs in North Dakota.

If the ONLY purpose of a business was to make money for the owners, no one would be in low margin / low profit businesses. No one would stay in dying industries. The problem is, as the business ages, as the owners retire or sell, we forget that the purpose of the business was originally to make money in a way the owner found interesting. We forget purpose and reason and treat it like a commodity rather than a legacy with a heritage. We lose sight of being interesting and compelling and begin playing the utterly moronic Maximize-Profits-This-Quarter-By-Cutting-Our-Throats game that gets played daily in corporations around the world.

How would that change business – our businesses – if we kept in sight the idea that we’re in hotels or banking or telecommunications or auto manufacturing or farming or whatever because it was once a way to make money (hopefully, good money) that was more interesting and compelling than all the other ways the founder could have made money? If we kept in mind that there was something about this business, this field, this industry that jazzed people?

I’m all for profit. But profit for the sake of profit is a snooze. Profit in pursuit of doing something cool, interesting, challenging, and amazing? That’s where the fun is. That’s where the purpose of a business lies.

What thinks you?

checklist counterproductivity

Consider for a moment the possibility that checklists just might destroy innovation, block creativity, stymie thinking, roadblock excellence, and basically hurt the customer and employee experience.

Checklists, like screwdrivers, email, insecticide, etc. are simply a tool that’s great for doing the job they were designed to do. And they are dangerous and damaging when used for most anything else.

Where do checklists work great? Keeping us on track for superstandardized but critical tasks. Pilots follow a pre-flight checklist even though they’ve done pre-flight checks hundreds of times because: 1) every step is crucial; and 2) the tasks are so routine it would be easy to start taking shortcuts. Checklists are critically important in these types of situations. Not coincidentally, these are situations where innovation, creativity, etc. are not desirable. We really, really want the pilots to do the exact same process every single time.

Checklists are fantastic for ensuring a minimal standard by removing variation. Fast food places standardize everything to ensure a consistent result are delivered, no matter who is doing the work. You’ll never be wowed, amazed, or delighted by the food, but that’s not the intention.

Where do checklists NOT work? In situations where we want people to experiment, think, create, innovate, and improve, where the purpose is more important than the step, where doing it right is more important than simply getting it done.

Checklists aren’t bad, but like any tool they can be misused. It’s very easy for people to abdicate their results and responsibilities to the checklist. They become reactive order takers, waiting to be told what to do, focused on checking the task off the list instead of thinking through the task. “I did it,” they say, but they rarely say, “I found a way to do it better.”

In my world, I see this when people focus on attending a training, getting the certificate, or earning the degree but put no value on what they learned, how they will apply it, or how it will help them do the job better. I see it when people say “I can’t move this forward because I called but they didn’t answer” instead of “I called, emailed, and tracked them down to get the information I needed.” It’s there when people stick to the letter of the policy, never considering the spirit or situation. It shows up when people cannot tell you the value their job provides, only the tasks it accomplishes.

The problem is that checklists don’t measure quality of work. They don’t measure persistence, adaptability, or caring about a job well done. Checklists treat every customer and every interaction the same. They ensure a minimal standard. They allow people to say “I did it”.

Some days, some situations, some tasks that’s enough. But any job that can be reduced to checklists is a prime candidate to be farmed out, done cheaper, mechanized/computerized, or eliminated. Any person who cannot think beyond the check box is setting themselves up for irrelevance.

working to prevent innovation

I recently wrote about people wanting to play with and explore ideas. It struck a chord with several folks but raises the question: where do ideas come from?

Hmmm. We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy. We behave as though we get medals of honor for scheduling as many meetings as possible, topped only by the sheer number of emails we must answer.

The problem with ideas is they don’t come on cue and never behave in an efficient manner. They bob, weave, and show up when you least expect them. My best ideas come while running, mountain biking, showering, playing with my kids, reading, etc. Almost never have I ever had inspiration strike in a meeting (except when the sole purpose of the meeting was brainstorming), while answering routine email, on a conference call, etc. And the times I did it was because I was checked out, daydreaming, and ignoring the topic at hand.

I can’t even pretend to be an expert on how our brains work, but from my own experience ideas happen most frequently when my brain is mildly occupied (running, cycling, reading), when I’m away from distractions for an extended period (phones aren’t ringing, email isn’t popping up, I can’t check facebook, etc.), and/or when there is something new or novel happening. Hmmm, mildly occupied, undistracted, and/or something new happening. How often do even two of those three things come together during a typical work day?

How often do we let it? We talk about the value of ideas and innovation, but in the name of efficiency, metrics, measurable output, Taylorism, and just looking busy we design and conduct our work in ways that are almost guaranteed to block creativity. It’s as though we do everything we can to avoid thinking even while we claim to want ideas.

There is a legendary story of Henry Ford, a man who understood that efficiency is important AND so are ideas and innovation. As the story goes, an efficiency expert complained about a man sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk. Ford’s response was, “That man once had an idea that saved me a million dollars. When he got it, his feet were right where they are now.” It’s been mentioned that so many innovators and entrepreneurs get their start in college because that’s a phase of life when they have time to play with ideas. Some companies (famously 3M and google) build in time to play and explore. Unfortunately, these examples stand out because they are so rare.

When we are competing on copying and price, efficiency is crucial. When we’re competing by standing out, differentiating, and creating better solutions I can’t help but think that the blind busyness of efficiency might be getting in our way.

It’s worth saying again: We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy.

Time to do better.


what do you mean it was a great meeting?

Compelling. Rejuvenating. Energizing. How often do people use those words to describe a daylong meeting focused on updating annual goals? How often do participants come away saying it was their best meeting all their years at the company? How often do they send thank you notes and stop the organizers in the hallway to say how fantastic it was?

Never? Exactly. A snowball’s chance as they say.

This week there was apparently a cold front blowing over the river Styx. Snowmen and downhill skiing in Hades and all that.

The company I work for is very big on goal setting and every June there is a meeting of roughly the top 20% leaders to look at internal and external factors that might require one’s goals to be updated/revised/changed. It’s an important event because it recognizes that the world is changing quickly and we need to adjust as needed. This year, the organizers took a big chance and shook things up.

Rather than talking about goals, goal setting, etc. the event happened like this: After a 30 minute kickoff, 15 teams of five people were given sealed envelopes with instructions for 8-10 out of 12 or so possible activities and turned loose. They got back together five hours later to debrief their insights from the activities and wrap things up. The activities ranged from looking at how competitors were using social media (in an industry that is very shy about such things), checking out internal learning resources available, going to the mall and seeing how a certain retailer is trying to rebrand itself, considering rapidly changing industries such as music and DVDs and how it might relate to our own, etc. They even decorated their own coffee mugs using markers (ala Pinterest) with how they were feeling about the near future. It all sounds campy and probably shouldn’t have worked. Amazingly (and thankfully) it did.

Why? I’m still not sure, but I have a few thoughts:

1. It was different and unexpected. People were planning on a long, dull day so the novelty was energizing and people appreciated the organizers taking chances with the meeting.

2. The teams were very cross functional across department, location, and level so participants got to know people they rarely work with or even speak to. There’s a lot of power and benefit in kicking at the silos.

3. People, even conservative people in conservative companies in conservative industries, want permission to play, explore, think, and discuss. They really don’t get a chance to do that.

4. The day was framed as being all about questions and possibilities. Participants were told up front that there were no answers to be given only exploration and discussion.

5. There was no right or wrong, just open ended questions. There was no looking at what the company needed to do better, no leading questions or judgment, just a lot of thinking about what was going on in a lot of different fields. The company has smart leaders and they were left to draw their own conclusions for moving forward.

6. When things didn’t work like the organizers had planned, they were very up front and shared it as a learning point for all the participants to benefit from.

7. The organizers didn’t apologize, hesitate, or doubt. Their words and attitudes conveyed that it was going to be a different, provocative, and fun day and the participants followed that lead.


In there is my own personal biggest takeaway: people want permission to think and play. Daily work, organizational politics and personalities, self-inflicted expectations, and fear of being different conspire to get in the way. Events that remove those constraints and create a safe zone for playing with ideas enable something pretty special to emerge.