Hey HR, It’s not about you

Having a strategic HR focus is essential for supporting long-term business performance. Close your mouth and stop yawning…. I know this sounds like a worn-out cliche straight out of a HR textbook, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In the words of The Faces, stay with me.

Creating appropriate, strategic, achievable longer-term plans is no easy task. It takes (or at least should take) a lot of research and planning, ideally taking an evidence-based approach. However it’s execution can often fall short in the authors pursuit of perfection, and can also fail to address the real business issue where the focus is on what HR can deliver instead of what it needs to. So what good is it when that happens? Not much good.

2 Lessons I Learned

I once wrote a people strategy that I was really proud of. I’d spent ages planning out the projects, being ambitious in what my department could achieve and being careful to assign the right owner to each task. I’d taken the time to discuss this strategy with my colleagues at senior level to pave the way for boardroom support and to excite others into being enthusiastic about what we could deliver together. This strategy was going to add value, no doubt. I even went out of my way to make it look pretty, which doesn’t come natural to me!

You know what I did wrong? I made it about HR. I broke rule number 1. I made it about what exciting stuff we could do, instead of what we should do. I was at a point in my career where I was enthusiastically reading about a whole range of new things that sounded interesting and cool, and so I wanted to work on this stuff in my organisation too. I wanted all of the good stuff because it was all going to benefit my organisation in some way. Or so I thought.

But of course, it shouldn’t have been about HR, and about what we wanted to work on and that certainly wasn’t the drive or intention, it’s kind of just what happened. It was, in part, solutioneering, not to mention way too ambitious and fundamentally, for a significant part, irrelevant.

At its core, the business had some challenges around workforce organisation, succession planning and leadership development. My beautiful looking “best practice” people strategy would have paid lip service to those areas instead of giving them the true focus they needed. My meticulously planned people strategy was radically changed for version 2 and important lesson 1 was learned.

Lesson 2 was about the HR equivalent of ‘Writers Block’. My second draft of the people strategy took longer than I would have liked to put together. My focus on ensuring it was all that it could (and should) be meant that I hit a wall and was nervous about presenting it to my colleagues in the board room. They loved the first draft, would they like the second, which was a more basic and practical strategy? It felt akin to giving someone a test drive in a Ferrarri and then telling them they were getting a Ford Fiesta; we needed a Fiesta more than we needed a Ferrarri but that might not necessarily make it a more attractive proposition.

I then had a great piece of advice from my boss who asked me whether ‘a perfect people strategy was worth the wait, or would a very reasonable one be adequate right now to help the business progress’.

I’m reminded of a quote i’ve referred to in previous blogs.

“Analysis is an important prerequisite of action. It is no substitute for action, and analysis without action or implementation remains mere analysis and is often seen as irritating sophistry.”

Charles Handy, Understanding Organisations, 1976.

I just needed to take what I had, be comfortable it was good enough, and get stuff done because that is what the organisation needed. (By the way, speaking of ‘Enough’, please take a moment to read this excellent blog from Perry Timms on this subject).

HR is not an Island

The HR function is intrinsic and embedded within good organisations so that we share accountability and enable business performance alongside all other functions and colleagues in all other departments. We are not an internal island with our own agenda. It isn’t about us, and walking the walk is just as important (if not more so) as talking the talk.

Its easy to become blindsided with best practice and to turn enthusiasm into a tunnel vision focused on impressing with good work, but is that work really necessary or are other challenges more important? Am I doing what the business really needs, or am I making a strategy fit what I want to deliver? And if it is the latter, go back to the drawing board and remember your purpose.

So if you are about to embark on creating a people/HR strategy focus on what your organisation needs from you. Identify what a successful outcome looks like and understand how it enables business performance. And realise that waiting for perfection is often to the detriment of the business. Sometimes, good enough will be good enough.