The myth of business experience

There are few things that get more annoyed than people asserting that HR people need to have “business experience”. It has become one of those arguments that is too easily propagated, without any real challenge  – and when placed under scrutiny is easily shown to be wanting.

Firstly, I’m not sure what “the business” is. My instinct is that it refers to a profit or service centre, historically the heart of the organisation. But organisations are changing fast and there are functions that exist that didn’t exist five years ago and that often drive significant improvements in performance, are they the business too? The assertion is outdated and suggests an internal service model which is increasingly becoming obsolete in forward thinking organisations, where collaboration and expertise is key.

Second, it assumes that HR practitioners have no unique skills or experience and that they are simply applying  playbook in their organisational context. You hardly ever hear the same allegation levelled at finance or marketing professionals. Does a vet have to have been an animal in order to do their job? In fact, you could as easily argue that every CEO should have worked in HR. People are our most important asset….after all…..

Finally, it misses the real issue. HR practitioners don’t have to work in the business (whatever it is) to be curious about it. You don’t have to be something to understand it. Rather than aspiring for an outdated explanation of an issue, we need to refocus our efforts on the core operations of our organisations, understanding them and the role that people have in delivering success. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to improve, it just means we need to be intelligent about the improvement.

That’s how HR gets better, by being thoughtful, mindful and curious, not by aspiring to do someone else’s job.

It’s time to move on.

The first possible answer

Do you think there is one single truth? How about one single answer? A definitive version of right?

Our explanation of our existence and the decisions that we make is defined by our retrospective analysis. Our psychology such that we create a narrative that supports our past conclusions. Only sometimes do we reflect and say, “what if?” and then when we feel external factors have left us short-changed.

Ironically at the same time we base our current thinking and decisions on our past. The past that we have rewritten to justify the decisions that we’ve made, becomes the foundation for our future direction. It’s a perfect circle of deception.

The product of this is that we tend to stop at the first possible answer. Our organisations are run by people that rely on this, which is why we struggle with genuine diversity of ideas and look for consensus. When we tend to have shared history, shared retro-perspective, we form more of the same conclusions. It makes things…..quicker.

But what is the probability that the first possible answer, is always the right one? Or even the best one?

Learning to ask the “what if” before rather than after, learning to listen to different views, learning to understand that our perspective is based on our rewriting of the past and that the more that we surround ourselves with people with similar pasts, the more we are likely to reinforce our single perspective. Could any of this help us make better decisions?

In science we talk about the null hypothesis. When we reject it without disproving its basis, we invalidate our research. Yet in business, we call it being commercial and agile, strong leadership.

Trying asking “what if” now and not after and see whether that moves you past your first possible answer. You might be surprised by the results.

We like it nice and hard

The hard appeals to us, the hard is commercial. The hard is sure and certain. The hard is the thing that we yearn for. As humans we long to be hard, to be formed, to be clear, to be resolute in our existence. The hard makes sense, it makes it easy, it makes us believe and belong.

And anything that stands in the way of this is unhelpful, it is counter productive, subversive nonsense. That needs to be put in its rightful place.

The soft is for the uncommitted, the inconclusive and the indecisive, the soft is for the softies, the losers and the weaklings, the almost rans and the wannabes. The soft is what makes us vulnerable.

Giving people choice is soft.
Telling them what to do is hard.

Giving people responsibility is soft.
Taking control is hard.

Considering the views of others is soft.
Being decisive is hard.

Looking after the wellbeing is soft.
Measurement of output is hard.

We know what we need and what we want, we know what we value and where we excel. We understand what makes us tick. What’s soft is hard, what is hard is soft.

The rest is just a choice.

Ordinary leads to ordinary

One of the biggest problems within the HR profession, is a lack of innovation. By this I don’t mean harebrained schemes dreamed up in those horrible “away days” that come to nothing, or worse, that actually come to something…….pointless. I mean true innovation. The creation of new and different ways of thinking about situations, and the definition of exciting future realities.


Because we worry too much about “the practicalities”. The moment that anyone starts to suggest ideas, to progress thoughts that are maybe slightly out of the everyday is also the moment that others start to provide reasons why it wouldn’t be possible.

Because we have to deal with practicalities right? We have to take into account the reality?

Yes. And no.

You see the problem with staying rooted to the practicalities is that you are anchoring your reality to the now, to the understood and known and therefore any solution you pitch will also fall into the understood and the known. It won’t be a game changer, it won’t radically alter anything. It will be humdrum.

When you frame your thinking in the ordinary, your solutions will be ordinary.

Now I know that at this point people will start telling me that there have been innovative solutions for mundane problems. Think Velcro, think Tippex, think Elastoplast. But innovation that shifts our paradigm does so because it pays no account to practicalities….it redefines them.

Think the internet. Think the steam engine. Think the transistor.

These are not answers to problems; these are enhancements to society. If we accept the workplace is a community, then we too should be striving for innovative enhancements rather than tactical solutions. Not every idea that we ever come up with will fly, but if we stop worrying about the here and the now and start defining the future, we’re more likely to find a shining jewel.

Practicality is the enemy of innovation.