Barrels of water & impenetrable cultures

In Tours in France, there is a beautiful medieval square called the Place Plumereau, now the home to multiple bars and restaurants. As a thriving spot, it offers employment opportunities, pouring drinks, serving tables, preparing food. The employees get to know one another, many of them working there for years and forming tight bonds. It is also the place a lot of young, and often needy, people go to get their first job.

Anyone who has ever learnt to work behind a bar knows that, regardless of how much time you’ve spent on the other side, it takes a little time to get to know the ropes. The disorientation, vulnerability and willingness that comes with learning , allows the experienced to test the new comers.

As the bars start to fill in the early evening and the customers start to line up, one of the experienced staff will turn to a new starter and declare that they’re all going to be in trouble, there’s a real problem, they’ve run out of water. Could they go and see whether one of the other bars will loan them a barrel of water?

The quickly go to the first bar, but unfortunately they’ve also run out, they suggest the next one to try. But again, no luck, they have just enough for the evening. The poor new employee, getting increasingly panicked and red in the face is sent from pillar to post, from bar to bar with a promise that if they just try one more, they’ll surely find the answer there.

And of course, there are no barrels of water. The water comes out of the taps in the same way that it does in their home. The victim is part of an initiation, a joke that is played, in one variation or another, on countless employees trying to show willing just to “fit in”.

This is a simple manifestation of the impenetrable culture that exists in so many of our organisations. Where we challenge people to complete pointless tasks to demonstrate their commitment to and compatibility with the organisation. At the worst extremes it is expressed by borderline discriminatory behaviour, but more usually by more benign, but equally thoughtless behaviour designed to test “fit”.

No matter how hard the individual tries, no matter the efforts that they put in, the end only comes when one of the established decides they’ve shown enough to end the game and allow the individual to join the ranks, or instead they become so frustrated and despondent that they decide to leave – regardless of the cost to themselves.

It may not be a barrel of water, it might be “understanding the business”, or “being more part of the team”, it could be the need to be “more vocal, visible or present”. Ultimately we place the same challenges on people, day in and day out, without really understanding the measures of success, other than receiving our acceptance. And although different, they are equally fictitious and pointless, testing nothing but perseverance and willingness to endure. Which of course, has absolutely no relevance to anything meaningful in the context of the organisation. Not even the ability to pour a beer.

HR is UX

Over the past few years, I’ve written repeatedly about simplicity being fundamental to the future of organisational management. I’m not alone, and increasingly there is a trend to recognise this. You know that when Deloitte starts referring to it as an emerging trend that it is no longer niche.

And whilst it is well acknowledged that simplicity is harder to achieve than complexity. I think, simplicity is…..well a little simple.

For me, the future of HR management lies in a concept that is often attributed to technology, but has as much, if not more, to do with human interaction. I’m talking about “user experience” or UX a term that didn’t really exist in this way until the mid 90s.

But UX and the approach to it can inform our HR and people management practices both in our use of technology and in the wider approach to employees.

It’s Sunday at time of writing and I’m feeling a bit lazy, so let’s borrow from Wikipedia the main benefits of UX based design,

• Avoiding unnecessary product features
• Simplifying design documentation and customer-centric technical publications
• Improving the usability of the system and therefore its acceptance by customers
• Expediting design and development through detailed and properly conceived guidelines
• Incorporating business and marketing goals while protecting the user’s freedom of choice

Anyone arguing with any of those? No, I thought not. But do we really practice it?

Think about when you open a new technology product. Let’s take an iPhone. The design, the presentation, the simplicity that belies the complexity beneath, the configurability and personalisation, the navigation and experience. Think of the excitement you felt the first time you saw or experienced one.

When smart phones came in to existence, nobody could see the point. The seemed like an expensive, laborious waste of time and money. But in time we’ve come to find them an essential that we can’t live without.

Now there’s a thing…..