Honey, let’s start over: A tale of business kaikaku

When Ian told them what he’d done, they couldn’t believe their ears. He had what!? He had erased every document in the company database concerning hiring and retaining staff. Joan’s deep thoughts on “talent management” simply gone. Gone! “Hey, what about the backups?”, Helen asked. Ian just smiled, “Those too”.

Paper in a waste paper binHaving an agile mindset affects many aspects of life. For example, is it possible to apply an agile mindset to running a company? Of course it is! If you consider the mechanics of evolution then using change to your advantage, no matter how painful, should probably be considered a necessary element to survive in the long run.

Of course, embracing change is simple but far from easy. Change is, as we know, quite difficult for humans. For example, it’s psychologically very hard to change your mind about something we’ve all agreed on. If something was settled before, perhaps after serious discussion, you don’t want to bring everything up again and rehash all those arguments.

As a company grows older, everything settles. It doesn’t start out that way. A brand new company is in a vulnerable, but enviable, position: Nothing has been decided. The founders get to make up rules and guidelines as they go along. First up are things like the business case, finding customers, and renting a scruffy office. Very soon you need to pay salaries. A few months later, someone brings up the idea of retirement funds for co-workers. Further along, an employee wants to have a vacation. And so on. Gradually more and more things get decided and fixed. Sometimes explicitly, in policies, guidelines, and templates; sometimes implicitly, in people’s minds. Over time, more and more things are made explicit. This helps the business run smoother and more efficient. But something has been lost, hasn’t it?

“But what about all the work we’ve put into it!?” Joan was almost in tears. Ian spoke softer now but still resolute: “Yeah, I know, sorry. We had all those nice recruiting process descriptions, candidate tests, interview templates, and so on. But I had a revelation over the weekend. They’re mostly just… baggage, you know?” Ian went on to describe the feeling when he pressed “Delete”. Some anxiety, but coupled with a distinct feeling of relief; like a burden was lifted from his shoulders, stuff that supposedly make us efficient but is holding us back instead. Helen looked sharply at Ian as Joan stormed out of the room.

When an organisation reaches a point where it has experienced most things that happen in business, the creative bits are over. Most things have been discussed, described, and decided. There is no new ground to cover; the exploration is over. All that remains is change. And change is hard.

Woman carrying too many bagsIn any mature company, if you want them to work in a different way or try some new, innovative technique, or whatever, you need change. You cannot simply create it like you did before. Everything already exists in some form. You need to be an agent of change, probably one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. Change will be slow or even resisted. Perhaps you will recognize some of these lines:

  • “Look, we’ve already decided on this. Can we move on, please?”,
  • “This has been refined for years and you want to throw that out?”,
  • “This might be useful in other places, but not here; we’re different”, and of course, the classic
  • “It’s just the way we do things around here”.

This effect is a natural thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing.

So here’s my idea: Why not throw out all that junk your organisation carries with it once in a while? Not change it, not keep it as an inspiration – delete it. It will be great! Starting over will free you of the sluggishness of changing stuff and once again let you venture into the world with the exciting feeling of exploration.

The chatter settled down. Ian and Joan were there, of course. Helen, the passionate HR specialist was there, all excited about some new trend in HR called “Agile HR”. Tom, the brilliant, quiet developer wanted in too, for some reason. As a special guest Ian had brought in David, an expert on complexity thinking. Ian started them off by welcoming everyone and explaining why they were there. Their mission was to totally reinvent how the company attracted and retained people. No stone was to be left unturned and all options should be considered. The goal of the new guidelines was to find and retain the best candidates and at the same time make the hiring process smoother and more enjoyable for everyone. Oh, he added with a smile, and make the cover of HBR during the next year.

So, do I seriously mean that we should throw away all those tools we have that make us so efficient? Damn right I do! For starters, most of your learnings are in your heads anyway. You will bring it along. Secondly, being efficient is not the same as being effective. Even if your hiring process is super-comfortable, if it doesn’t weed out the best candidates, it’s not effective. And finally, if you don’t throw it away first, you are going to use it, one way or the other. That’s not the way to innovation. If this feels scary, let me clarify that it shouldn’t be an all-at-once thing. Attack one type of knowledge, one area, at a time.

Now you’re in uncharted territory. Start exploring by creating a knowledgeable, cross-functional, passionate task force of innovation. Bring in outside inspiration. Sit down together and re-imagine what you’re doing. Let yourself go. Enjoy the luxury of not having to deal with all that existing crap.

Now, there is nothing stopping you from doing exactly the same without actually throwing away anything first. But honestly, how many times have you completely started over? I’m guessing, never. Don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault. It’s simply because of the built-in inertia of baggage. For this to work it’s vital that you remove, or at least hide away, the old stuff.

The group was inspired by Ian’s words and jumped at the task. After the first four-hour workshop, everyone was still a bit confused, but happy. They had discussed many question never put forth before in the company: What does world-class hiring look like today? What’s truly important to us with our employees? What good is a resume, really? How can we make the experience pleasant for the candidate? Everybody’s doing it, but is outsourcing recruitment really a good idea? Suddenly, the possibilities seemed endless.

If you’re a Lean geek you will recognize this as a kind of action as a kaikaku, a radical change or fundamental re-organisation, as opposed to kaizen, small improvements all the time. A kaikaku for business, if you will. What’s great about kaikaku events is that they are designed to make you leave your current, local optima for somewhere new, hopefully closer to the global optima, which you could reach by refining the new solution, using kaizen. It takes guts to leave the safe surroundings of the local optima. It’s the world of efficiency, familiarity, and “best practices”. It is also the world of mind-numbing mediocrity.

The organisation never did make the cover of HBR, but they did get some attention from the national business press. And won an HR award, no less! More importantly, it completely redefined how they thought about hiring. They went from their traditional model of outsourced search, three interviews and a psychological test to something more suitable for their business, something the world had not seen before, where values like adaptivity, diversity, and candidate-focus ruled. The results didn’t take long to emerge. The lead time from identified to decision went from over four weeks to four days. The satisfaction of new hires went from 7 to 9. For those that were rejected, results were even more astounding; from 3 to 8. Best of all, the company easily found the people it needed. Or as Joan put it: “Who needs talent management when you have a wastebasket?”

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