Sunday, 30 March 2014

It's Simple

This afternoon I decided to upgrade my phone (I was due an upgrade in August 2012, so, clearly, I have been contemplating this for a while).  Gosh there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into consideration, comparison websites to read, friends to ask, pitfalls to be avoided, deals to be done, Apps to ponder, etc…  I felt  much like AA Milne’s much loved character, Winnie the Pooh, when I was bombarded with complicated terms and jargon:  
“I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother Me”

And I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Rolling Stones, It’s Not Easy

The complexity of the experience (both for me and then for the on-line-chat representative of my current mobile provider, who both had to answer my myriad of questions and argue to retain my custom) got me thinking about how difficult we make things for people at work.   Rules and regulations are multiplying and the options available to employers and employees are increasing - flexible working, variations to contractual terms, tech specs, multi-cultural teams, non-standard locations, differing work environments, new legislation, fracturing team structures, cross-company and external  collaboration (even with competitors), the impact of social media, multi-generational workforces - all make our lives more complex.

In theory technology should help make it easier for organisations to enable it to feel personal for their employees and for them to offer flexibility that suits singular needs, but just by doing so we add to the complexity for the business and/or departments that have to track such things.  HR is one that has to constantly cope with the changing world and often seems to do so by becoming controlling and crafting restrictive policies and procedures.  (I was asked to create a global policy for e-cigarette usage earlier this month.)  I am not keen on tight prescriptions as to how people should behave (if you employ adults, whom you trust to do a good job, then, in most instances, they should be capable of knowing what is and what is not appropriate conduct).   I am in favour of treating people as individuals - each of us is unique and if an employer can let its people be the best of themselves, at all times, then that business should get the best outcomes from its employees.

I am concerned that, in order to try to cover all the bases, HR is often guilty of creating procedures and/or writing policies that are hard for employees to follow (or which are long and cumbersome, and hence discourage others from reading or wishing to apply any proposed new approach). We write things that often feel as if they will demand significant effort, even just to achieve initial comprehension.  The same often occurs in sales, when, eager to make as many positive points as possible, the salesman ends up confusing his potential customer and hence no purchase is made. This can apply both to the quantity of information provided or simply to an excess of choice.  In an interesting experiment in America, Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University, set up a free tasting booth for jams at a local supermarket known for extensive product ranges.  The test was conducted over two consecutive Saturdays.  On the first day 24 types of jam were made available, whereas the following Saturday only 6 were offered for tasting.  When 24 jams were on display, 60% of customers stopped for a taste and 3% bought some.  However, when only 6 were available, although only 40% of customers stopped to sample, 30% bought some. A 600% increase in sales.  This experiment has been repeated on numerous occasions and the outcome is consistent.  Absorbing information and making decisions is mentally taxing and results in what social psychologists refer to as “choice overload”.  HR, when drafting complicated policies and procedures risks giving people “information overload” with the same outcome: people switch off.

We often make things more complicated than they need to be.  A simple idea is often the best.  This week I was very struck both by the simplicity and efficacy of a concept by designer Arturo Vittori to solve the Ethiopian water shortage.  He has created 30 feet tall water towers (called Warkawater towers); they look like giant vases and can collect over 25 gallons of water per day, by harvesting water vapour from the atmosphere.  They can easily be made using locally available materials and the concept is based on simple physics that can be seen in action in nature.

I am convinced that one of the reasons why desired change often does not occur is because the people trying to make it happen look for sophisticated solutions and/or make matters too complicated for the those involved, and thereby lose the goodwill of the individuals whom they wish to inspire and carry with them.  There is much sense in Steve Job’s comment:
“That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
We have recently acquired a new HR Information System and have been creating bespoke approaches for performance management and reviews.  It is tempting to try and produce something that will work in every envisaged scenario, but the more information and guidance notes you add, the more cumbersome a process can feel and the less likely employees are to be excited by the change and a new way forward.  It is crucial to make things easy. As Einstein famously said
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
An excellent (and humorous) example of the importance of making it simple is John Cleese’s sketch explaining the Offside Rule in football:

Why do we make things complex and resort to jargon and involution?  It is possible that people do so to protect their position and/or to make themselves seem important or knowledgeable. Insecurity can make people behave in strange ways. However, truly intelligent people are not hesitant in communicating their knowledge - indeed they relish sharing and educating others; they know that they seldom have all the answers and hence collaboration and contributions from others could further enhance their original ideas.  Like creating a fine cameo, there is much to be said for paring away unnecessary layers to expose something of beauty.  

The Portland Vase
The Portland Vase, often cited as the finest example of cameo artistry, is an excellent case in point.  The Romans viewed cameos as the most refined and revered of artistic techniques. A cameo is produced by creating an object out of two layers of stone or glass (usually dark blue and white glass melded together).  The cameo is produced by cutting through the top layer to provide an image in relief against the contrasting ground beneath. The stunning Portland Vase was made in Alexandria between AD 1 and AD 25 and can now be viewed in the British Museum.  What many people do not know is that in was shattered in 1845 by a certain William Lloyd who, having been drinking for over a week, threw a sculpture onto the Portland Vase’s display case, smashing the vase into over 150 pieces.  It was painstakingly repaired and has since been restored on several occasions, most recently in 1989, when each minute fragment was scanned by a computer and scientific analysis used to ensure an optimum reassembly - a great example of the value of Technology to the Arts.
Shattered Cameo Vase
Technology has its uses and the speed with which it is developing is awe inspiring - its hard to believe that the iPad is less than four years old, especially given the impact that it already has had on global business.  So I urge people in HR not to try to be too prescriptive or to insist on attempting to define exactly how things are and should be - the world is changing too fast for that.  Far better to make things easy and to teach employees how to be responsible and to use their minds.  For the sake of me, and fellow Pooh Bears with little brains, please keep it simple.  Lynyrd Skynyrd - Simple Man

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Soft Fruit and Hard Balls

I have spent the past week in South Africa on business.  It is a beautiful, complex and inspiring country and I appreciate how fortunate I am to enjoy some time here, gaining a better understanding of the environment and working with its people.  On Saturday, on the advice of a friend, I went to explore the charming town of Franschhoek in the Cape Wine region.  On arrival it reminded me slightly of Arrowtown, the gold mining town established in 1862 in the Central Otago region of South Island, New Zealand.  Both locations have amazing mountain backdrops; produce exceptional wines; are located near good golf courses; can boast charming, well-preserved, rural architecture, predominantly dating back to the mid-nineteenth century - you might be interested to know that Franschhoek was only formally declared a town in 1881, having formerly been a nameless “dorp” (small town on the Platteland) for over two centuries.  Both towns’ successes are founded on the arrival of productive and passionate settlers (in particular the Huguenots in South Africa - but that is a topic for another day).  The towns’ buildings are adorned with Victorian-style artefacts, such as verandahs and sash windows, and to this day they have retained an old world charm, with tree lined avenues and space, that make them feel like the European towns that many settlers had left behind. In each location, these attractive stone buildings were only erected after initial pioneers had established themselves, living frugally, with little other than basic tools and their bare hands to forge a place within a wild and inhospitable environment.

Platteland at Frenschhoek
Each town is beautiful and appealing, but there are darker sides to their development that are also important factors in making them into what they have now become.  Each has a history of slavery, exclusion and exploitation (the Chinese miners at Arrowtown were invited to come and seek gold, but only once the majority of European originated miners had given up and moved on, due to the diminishing levels of gold).  The Chinese, seen as alien foreigners, were ostracised by the wider community, so that they were forced to reside in miserable accommodation and conditions, far away from the main town.  

Chinese gold miners' accommodation
In Franschhoek slaves were imported from countries such as Malaysia, other regions of Africa and India, soon after the land was colonised.  These slaves undertook hard labour on the land to create productive homesteads and grow produce for trade and supporting the Dutch East India Company ships and other vessels rounding The Cape.  The deliberate introduction of slaves was a clear alternative to utilising the local indigenous people - the San and the Khoikhoi bushmen in South Africa, whom the setters considered primitive.   The indigenous people had little desire to work for or with the Europeans - their culture was fundamentally different, being bushmen they did not appreciate the concept of homesteads and the ownership of land; they were by choice nomadic hunter-gatherers and herdsmen.  Indeed, it was not until the after the two tribes had merged to become the Khoisans, and their populace was decimated by Smallpox (brought over from Europe in 1713 by setters and against which the bushmen had no immunity) - resulting in their numbers being reduced from over 200,000 to a mere 15,000 - that they were compelled into living and working with the colonialists in order to survive.   They became farm hands as the main activities around Franschhoek were the production of orchard and soft fruit such as apricots and grapes.  The Khoisan have left little by way of a tangible legacy of their own culture, other than intriguing rock art and cave paintings - some of which show the influence of the colonial settlers at the time that the traditional bushmen lifestyle in the Cape region was in decline.

Bushmen rock art
In New Zealand, the Maori also were nomadic people and regularly used to pass through Arrowtown on route to hunting the giant Moa birds (not unlike the African Ostrich) and seeking greenstone, which they treasured for making beautiful and functional tools. (Neither the Maoris nor the African bushmen developed smithing and smelting skills to make their own metal artefacts, prior to the arrival of Europeans).  The Maoris were not in favour of the settlers’ arrival and possession of land - as with the tribes in South Africa, they did not share the same outlook and ways of living.  And, like the Khoikhoi and San aboriginals, the Maori were talented and exuberant artists, leaving rock art and various artefacts, as a memory and record of their time in the land.  Neither indigenous peoples survived contact with the new arrivals without significant change to their own cultures and way of living.  Much was lost as well as gained by the contact.  One thing that was lost forever was their unique and perhaps simpler outlook on the world based on they own experiences.  Contact with different cultures and approaches inevitably results in change.  As Lady Bracknell comments in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest

“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”

The parallels between the two towns and their people continue to amaze me: more recently, both locations saw a decline in populations until the 1950s, when they both independently reinvented themselves as genteel holiday destinations.  It is hardly surprising that, on wandering through Franschhoek at the weekend, I was very struck by the similarities to Arrowtown.  They may be far apart but the men who created the towns shared smiler cultural roots and outlooks.

During my visit, as well as admiring the stunning views, I tried to get a better feel for the local culture (as perhaps you can tell from the above comments).  I paid a brief visit to the Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschhoek  - a treasure house of personal property, family history and people’s stories.  I was inspired by what I saw and it made me think about the world of work in which we now operate and how we treat people. I could talk further on slavery and toil - timely and apt perhaps, given the recent Oscar success for “Twelve Years a Slave” (winning Best Film and Best Actor) .  However, despite my concern for ensuring fairness and equality within the workplace, it was a very simple exhibit, lying amongst a collection of fairly nondescript agriculture objects, that has remained embedded in my thoughts.  It was a collection of beautifully shaped, very simple, wooden balls, used in the past for making indentations in straw or other suitable packing material, to ensure safe passage for soft fruit when being transported to market or overseas.  When I first saw them I thought that they were a child’s croquet set, but then, on closer inspection, I realised that none of the balls was exactly the same size as any of the others.  The correct sized ball would be selected each time, by comparison to the piece of fruit, to ensure a perfect, snug fit.  Attention to detail and was required when using the balls. This was not an environment where a “one size will fit all approach” was deemed appropriate, despite the effort required to create a space of optimum dimensions and security for a peach, apple or apricot.  And no “placing of square pegs in round holes”, so to speak - each piece of fruit was provided with its own, bespoke hollow, appropriate and unique to it.  

Apricots - the first popular crop grown at Franschhoek
Throughout the growth of industrialised and large-scale commercial businesses, organisations have sought to commoditise and standardise approaches - to benefit from efficiency and speed.  However, I wonder if a time for a change in this approach is now upon us.  With the advent of technology, it is easier to be more bespoke both for customers and employees, without incurring significant costs and inconvenience.  Environmental planning and workplace considerations can now be quite individual, as indeed can learning and development.  In training, a “sheep dip” approach, despite having a purpose (such as ensuring required compliance or regulatory awareness), will seldom produce the best outcomes.  One of the reasons why I am a supporter of coaching within the workplace is that people are individuals and optimum outcomes require individual focus and understanding.  The time has come to stand back and consider what we are trying to achieve in the workplace, rather than simply tweaking an existing approach or offering. 

“Everyone thinks that the principal thing to the tree is the fruit, but in point of fact the principal thing to it is the seed.” - Nietzsche

So we need to think not just about the business objectives, but also about the people we are relying upon to achieve results - do we know what is important to them?  If you don’t understand what drives and motives the people you are supposed to be leading, you cannot expect to be able to get them to follow you.  Getting it wrong, disregarding them as individuals and treating them only as part of a process rather than a person (with feelings, frustrations and aspirations) can demotivate and demoralise.  All too easily a disgruntled employee, like a bruised piece of fruit, can turn foul, possibly contaminating others around them.  Little sophistication was required to make the wooden balls a valuable tool, only an eye for detail and an appreciation of size and individuality. The farmers around Franschhoek have, through hard work and the help of others, created a beautiful and productive environment.  Centuries ago slavery was deemed appropriate to achieve desired results.  Nowadays, to get things done you cannot rely on a whip and harsh treatment.  People are delicate.  You need to inspire them, make them comfortable so that they can share your vision and support them so that they will support you, hard results can and should be achieved through a soft touch.

J. H. Pierneef (1886-1957) painting of South Africa

Rock art in the Drakensberg