Simplicity in practice

For years I’ve been banging on about the unnecessary complexity of the modern workplace. And whilst it is reassuring to hear more and more people talk about the need to make things simpler and, “more human”, I’m more concerned than ever that we just don’t understand what that means.

It means doing less – which probably means smaller teams and lower budgets.

It means stopping – which probably means losing elements of perceived control.

It means thinking differently – which probably means losing people.

It means a new alignment – which means creating a new purpose.

And this is why it is easier for people to stand on conference stages, write articles or sell services, than it is to achieve as a practitioner. Because these changes go directly to the heart of the way in which we operate and have operated for years. They go to the heart of everything we have been taught is right and told to value.

In many ways, the world of “management” is very like the world of diet, health and wellbeing. Full of fads and initiatives that are layered on top of one another, each promising to be the answer, when deep down we know that the problem itself is one that never used to exist – until we created it ourselves.

We celebrate the ditching of the performance review – when that is simply a symptom of a problem that we created. The desire to differentiate and measure individuals within a group.

We champion the need for candidate and employee experience – presenting the treatment of people with dignity and respect as revolutionary or new.

Understanding the solution, means looking beyond the symptoms to the root causes. In the same way that faddy diets don’t deal with obesity and can instead contribute to the problem. We need to take a systemic and focused approach that recognises the multiple complex drivers, that recognises our contribution to them and starts to unpick and unwind, rather than layer on top.

To put it simply, we are the problem and we are also the solution; but only if we choose to change.

Ripping up the writing rules

As human beings we’re conditioned to use “appropriate” language depending on our setting. In the bar, in a shop, when we bump in to someone on the street and, of course, in the workplace. We choose the way in which we speak, the way in which we interact based not on our conscious decisions, but instead on the way in which society has shaped us.

Similarly, our reaction to the language of others is also conditioned by our expectations of situational appropriateness. When something does meet with these expectations, we take note. Sometimes, with shock, surprise and maybe even joy.

If we want to create more human, more humane workforces, we must never forget the power of the words we use. We need to remember that we are conditioned to write, to talk to employees, to present ourselves in certain ways. There is no rule book, no code of conduct that exists that tells us we need to talk in this way. It’s just years and years of conditioning.

See what I mean:

“We are committed to being a flexible employer as a method of helping us to retain valued employees. We recognise that there may be times when you wish to take an extended period of absence in order to pursue personal interests or domestic duties such as caring for a family member.”


“We recognise the potential in all of our employees and that talent exists throughout the organisation. Analysis has already taken place across the organisation to map out current activities that support talent management and to identify strengths,weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”

And my personal favourite,

“Here at xxxx our ambition is to create the best environment for all our colleagues to reach their full potential. In doing so, we build the culture, capability and capacity to help the business meet its multichannel growth ambitions.

We are facilitating a simple, honest and human culture that is inclusive, collaborative and connected. Ensuring we work with the right structures and processes, to enable flexibility and a culture that values individual contribution, builds teams and minimises risk for xxx.”

Who actually talks like this? I doubt the author of any of these pieces would ever actually speak this way, yet when they put their work hat on, something else comes out. And the expectations of the recipients are met.

Changing how we think, how we act and how we speak is hard. We’re wired to be one thing and yet we want to be another. It takes commitment and it takes perseverance. But when we do, people are more likely to take note.

“We know sometimes you’ll need to take extra time off to deal with the things that happen in life, and that’s ok”

“We want to help you to use all of your skills and abilities at work”

“We’re trying to be the best we can be and to help you to do the same”

Here’s the challenge. As you’re writing this week, whether it is a policy, an advert, an email or announcement. Ask yourself whether you’re writing as you, or whether you’re writing as you’ve been conditioned. If it’s the latter, try switching it around. Speak like a human, not a Human Resource and see what the reaction is. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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…..

Essential HR marketing

Last week I wrote about the consumerisation of HR, the fact that we need to be obsessive about simplicity and “end user experience”. HR is essentially a series of products that we are trying to sell in to the various other parts of the business. Too often though, we overlook this and instead try to mandate, which has the impact of both disempowering us and annoying everyone else.

Which is really not cool.

We were looking at a particular HR intervention recently and sought feedback from line managers and employees across the globe on how we should go about it. Regardless of whether people came from Europe, Asia or the US, their answers could broadly be summarised as,

Keep it simple
Explain why things need to change
Explain what’s in it for me

Which is about as concise a summary of how to take a product to market as you’ll ever get. I’ve written before about the questions that we can use when evaluating what we do and whether it is value adding activity or HR nonsense. But it seems to me that these additional employee questions beautifully compliment that design framework when it comes to marketing our products and services.

Have we kept things as simple as possible? Is the design user friendly? Is it sexy and nice to look at, to touch and to hold? Does it have more tick boxes than a social security form or have we thought more cleverly about design? Have we chosen our language to engage and relate rather than to alienate and patronise?

What is the compelling message? Can we clearly articulate why we are doing something and the business or social imperative? Can we win hearts and minds and consistently and coherently explain the changes that we are making? Is the narrative the same everywhere or are there different complimentary messages for different groups?

What is the individual win? What will each employee group get from this intervention? How will employees benefit? What will managers get that is helpful and different? Will the leadership team be benefitting in a different way? If you sat down for thirty minutes with any single employee, could you (and every member of your team) clearly articulate the “win” for for them and each and every other employee?

Successful product design is hard. It requires thought and focus. It requires innovation and experimentation and it requires courage. But thinking about the end user, thinking about their experience and thinking about what they want is more likely going to make it successful than thinking about what you as a HR professional or team need. And ultimately more likely to get you success.

We shouldn’t be afraid of marketing, we shouldn’t be afraid of selling. We should always be out to win hearts and minds and gain commitment and “buy in”, rather than to seek mandates and enforcement. But at the end of the day, it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell in a well designed product than a lazy, thoughtless piece of work.

Which is why it is always worth spending the extra time thinking about the design and what it means to your people.