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Keep it simple, stupid

With increased complexity everywhere, a key deliverable for 2016 should be simplicity

By Ian Hendry


A couple of weeks ago, a group of SCNetwork CHROs met over lunch, reflecting on the past year and the challenges ahead of them in 2016. Parts of the conversation will be published in upcoming issues of Canadian HR Reporter.

As you might expect, a diverse set of companies were tackling some similar and familiar issues, but there are unique challenges based on industry, breadth of regulation, global competition, economic conditions, and other factors.

Against a troubled global backdrop, be it socio-economic or the frightening implications of the Paris massacre, and much more, and given the increased complexity everywhere we look, it seems to me one of the key deliverables for the profession in 2016 is providing simplicity.

I just read an article by Clayton Christensen, whom I greatly admire, and he answers the question as to whether Uber is a disruptive innovator. Ask a taxi operator and chances are she will have very little interest in whether Uber fits the definition of disruptive innovation theory. Her overriding concern is simply how to change on a dime to compete.

In a similar vein, as more and more is uncovered in our understanding of the brain’s function, and how it drives employee behaviour, a line leader I know succinctly observed (and this is respectfully edited for print), “That might be interesting, but what do I do differently as a leader? I don’t need details, just give me the bottom line.”

In other words, keep it plain and simple. In all the different facets of HR, our job is to make what we do relevant and logical. I fear we may have strayed away from KISS — “Keep it simple, stupid.”

So, why is that? You might hear, like I do, technologists constantly pressing to be exposed to the latest leading-edge technologies. I appreciate these professionals want to keep upgrading their skills, as they should, but there is an element of always needing to do “neat stuff,” and perhaps HR has fallen into that mindset also.

Chasing shiny objects is a fatal attraction. In HR, we want to be delivering new ideas and programs to help drive the organization forward. That’s understood. However, a recent study of executives identified their #1 priority for HR — to safeguard and retain top talent. That means knowing what motivates top talent and what successfully keeps them delivering outstanding results.

Structure, job design, team dynamics, executive leadership, recognition, and incentives are just some of the levers we need to be able to operate. I see a disregard of such an edict as negligence. As one CEO once said, “I don’t care how, just do it.”

Just to be clear, this is not a criticism at all. My job was, and still is today, to figure it out and make it happen. I fear we bog down and fall into the trap of creating “mission impossible” for ourselves. For example, trying to manage all employee behaviour or ensuring that all policies are followed, which can create the impression we are not contributing enough on the critical “business” stuff.

That’s why being clear about what delivers the most value to the organization requires an understanding of the business with clarity and simplicity regarding how we positively influence the strategy, and the related action plan, in the most effective way.

Of course, we all want to appear smart at the executive table, plus be aware of what the CEO might grab hold of from reading the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and the plethora of other gurus, many of whom have never tried to run a business.

Let’s not forget that CEOs are trying to impress the board too. However, as CHROs, we need to be able to shift through this maze of overwhelming content to determine what’s relevant, practical and unique to the situation in which we find ourselves.

I am tired of employees telling me our company needs to be like Google. (Thankfully, cries of being like Amazon have now become whimpers.) Yes, of course, we can learn from, and cherry pick, some things Google does well, but we’ll never be Google, nor should we be.

Keeping it simple is hard, thoughtful work. As we enter 2016, some of the questions we face include:

  • How we think about the democratization of work?
  • How we meld a contingent workforce with our longer term employees?
  • How we leverage social networks?
  • How we maximize benefit costs as mental health issues increase?
  • How will technology change every functional area of the companies in which we work?
  • How do we re-shape incentive programs as margins shrink?

Being able to synthesize all this and then being skillful in using limited resources to tackle what is really vital is key. Sometimes it means telling another executive you are not an ambulance chaser on his pet project, but in telling him “no,” clarity on your decisions as to where and why the company will be investing in people is going to test your acumen and mettle.

If it is time to step up, then maybe it’s time to refresh KISS?

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.
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