A path lit by words

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When human bias creeps in…

surveytableRecently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.

It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?

I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative:  prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.

Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.

Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?

I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.

In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.


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Just the facts, Ma’am!


Recently I (re)learned an important lesson in journalism. It’s about checking your facts—no matter how reliable your source appears to be. An old lesson? You bet, but one overlooked by several well-known academics with best-selling books.

Researching a white paper on change management, I uncovered a shocking statistic: Seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail. Seventy percent! These are mergers and acquisitions, technology/systems overhauls, culture reinventions, and a host of other strategic undertakings—multi-million dollar change projects, intended to improve business results by leaps and bounds. Apparently, they don’t.

The infamous “70% failure rate” first appeared when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation in 1993. Hailed as “the most successful business book of the last decade,” it set off a movement the authors called “business revolution.” A consultant then, I witnessed the competition among professional services firms to be crowned the one that could guarantee transformative, enduring business process redesign.

Through the years, other change experts—among them Beer and Nohria (Breaking the Code of Change) and John P. Kotter (Leading Change, Heart of Change)—picked up the 70% failure rate in some form or fashion. It became entrenched in the management consulting literature—until recently, when (I surmise; no empirical studies have confirmed it) some change management proponents got mad.

In 2011, Dr. Mark Hughes, of the Brighton Business School, decided to debunk the myth. He traced its evolution from Hammer and Champy, source by source, quote by quote, and concluded, “Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” In other words, it was not derived from a controlled, scientific study. It was someone’s opinion or worse, someone’s guess. (Hughes added a few words about “opportunistic business consultants” who may have deliberately promoted an exaggerated figure to sell their consulting services.)

Other change practitioners continue to challenge the 70 percent figure. “Change Whisperer” Gail Severini, Jennifer Frahm, founder of the Australian group Conversations of Change, and others continue to attack the claim as totally lacking in evidence. “Nothing to support it,” Frahm sums up. “No mention of where this fact has come from.”

My point in all this? I don’t think it matters whether 40%, 50%, or 70% of change projects fail. It’s too many, and I would wager that any of those figures would have earned the business world’s attention, back in the day. What does matter is accuracy, and as a freelancer, I’m finding that more and more difficult to guarantee. With the Internet, so much information poses as truth. There are no barriers to entry, no certification required. The potential for many-layers-removed misquoting has increased exponentially.

All I can do is rely on trusted sources; double, triple, and quadruple check my facts; and make sure I document them. What do you do? I’d like to know!

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Ghost-blogging–don’t tell!

ImageI’ve discovered another type of freelancing that’s a lot of fun–ghost-blogging. Although many people struggle for content, it’s easy for me to riff on a topic after doing some quick research. I’ll admit that I’m torn: It’s good work, but seeing someone else’s name on my work bothers me.

But we’re writers. That’s what we get paid for, and we’re fortunate to find people who appreciate our skills. When I first started freelancing, I was appalled at the meager rates clients offered to writers. I’ve come to believe that more often than not, we writers are to blame. We don’t value our time and talent. It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally learned that writing–usually fun and always absorbing for me–is excruciating for most people. That’s good news for us, especially with the internet and the proliferation of websites. The demand for content–and for writers–will only grow, giving us an ideal opportunity to combine our writing talent with whatever content expertise we’ve amassed through the years.

Mine is in Human Resources, and it’s proving quite useful. Trusting that my audience and my client’s audience are unlikely to cross, here’s a blog we recently posted.

The Future of Agile HR

Last week I checked in with Marie, the Vice President, Human Resources of a mid-size energy firm. We’ve known each other for more than ten years, so I was surprised when she said she couldn’t talk long—she had to go find more hours in her day. It turns out she had just read Accenture’s report on agile organizations and, by extension, agile HR. If you haven’t seen it, have a look. It’s a well-researched, comprehensive, and sobering forecast of what organizations of the future must do to succeed—and the daunting new roles HR will be called on to play.

“I already work sixty hours a week,” my colleague moaned, “and it looks like I’m not doing anything right.”

“Relax,” I consoled her. “It’s thought leadership. It’s supposed to be provocative. It’s meant to be aspirational.”

But Marie’s reaction troubled me. She’s smart and committed, not easily discouraged. I hate that she felt demoralized, yet her timing was perfect because she reminded me of an important truth: thought leadership is relative. One company’s aspirational goal is another’s impossible dream. It’s much like “best” practices: no practice is best unless it’s best for you. I knew that, but Marie reminded me at a critical time—the early months of my new consulting firm.

So here’s what I promise you: I won’t beat my chest. I won’t play to the highest common denominator, the most sophisticated HR organizations, the Fortune 100. I’ll do my best to meet you where you are and to help you determine where you can and should go. You’ll get my honest take on the world of HR, experienced through my clients and my interactions with others in the field. I promise to be practical and thoughtful, focused on advice you can use. And rest assured, I won’t sugarcoat the facts.

To that end, here’s my short take on agile HR. Too often HR is seen as an obstacle, dragging its feet when the business urgently needs an answer, a resource, or a new approach. It’s tempting to cave in to the demand to do “what they want” faster. But agility is much more than speed. It means thinking on your feet, so that rather than cutting corners or improving your time in the same old race, you’re blazing a trail to an extraordinary solution. You must have the vision to last for the long run.

Watch for a paper we’re drafting right now, expanding on this view of agility and offering advice on how to determine the changes you must make—the changes that are right for you.

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“The War for Talent” Rages On

tug of war for talent

One of my freelance writing gigs is helping a former colleague create thought leadership for her website. We share a career in human resources consulting, although our specialties are different: I’ve concentrated on people— talent strategy and management—and her focus is the organization, processes, and systems that make HR work efficiently. Or not.

This morning we were brainstorming blog topics. Like any other form of writing, blogging carries idea anxiety. My advice when someone asks, “What on earth can I blog about?” is to keep an eye on current events, professional news, and industry happenings. If something you see, read, or hear makes your heart sing or your blood boil, there’s a good chance you can blog about it.

I’d just made that statement when we came across a report titled, Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for the Global Economic Recovery. A statement on the first page rang a bell, and the sound wasn’t pretty:

“Back in 1997, McKinsey coined the phrase, ‘war for talent.’ Today, one could argue that the war is over and ‘the talent won.’ ”

I had to read it twice. How can anyone believe that employees have won much of anything in the 17 years since McKinsey published “The War for Talent”? Gallup’s latest research on worldwide employee engagement, “The State of the Global Workplace, 2013” reports that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. That means 87 percent of employees have jobs they’re eager to leave in companies they aren’t proud to work for. That’s winning the war?

Just as “selfie” wormed its way into the urban dictionary, “the war for talent” has invaded the business lexicon (Google the term and you’ll get 110,000,000 results). Legions of researchers and consultants have borrowed, modified, and sometimes butchered the phrase. My favorite misquote is “the war on talent”— an appallingly accurate description of the atrocities employers commit against their “most valuable resource.”

My colleague and I stand with the majority who see the talent war as ongoing, and the contributing factors as complex and abundant. One factor we’ll explore in an upcoming Insight is the impact on employees of HR transformation. Our premise is simple: Intent—for two decades—on becoming a business-savvy strategic partner, HR has focused too much on processes and systems, particularly technology overhauls and upgrades. The unintended consequence? They have shortchanged improvements that would have made their employees more capable, more confident, more creative and innovative—and fully engaged in their work.

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re learning a lot. We’re also finding new angles to explore–and to write about. Stay tuned!