Lead by Design: Tips for slowing down to speed up

October 23, 2017


My previous article The Future of HR's Work highlighted the opportunity for HR to "lead by design". To move away from leading with solutions based on a predicted future, to designing a culture that discovers the future. This article is one of a series, shining light on practical ways HR can lead by design.


Slowing down to speed up


Being agile means moving quickly and easily. However, simply equating agility with speed has some inherent traps. This article offers leaders and HR tips on how to influence a culture that knows when and how to slow down to speed up.  Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google X, (Yes, all those names are real!), brings these to life with a story:


“Let’s say you’re trying to teach a monkey how to recite Shakespeare while on a pedestal. How should you allocate your time and money between training the monkey and building the pedestal? The right answer, of course, is to spend zero time thinking about the pedestal. But I bet at least a couple of people will rush off and start building a really great pedestal first. Why? Because at some point the boss is going to pop by and ask for a status update — and you want to be able to show off something other than a long list of reasons why teaching a monkey to talk is really, really hard.”


Many organisations build a lot of pillars. It’s human nature to want to demonstrate progress, and most measures of employee performance value delivery over learning. A truly agile culture focuses on tackling “The Monkeys”, those mission critical assumptions it pays to test quickly. After all, it’s better to discover the likely Achilles heel of a project now than in six months time. By focusing on the Monkey resources can be diverted more quickly if a project has a low chance of success. If the Monkey is solved then the project can then progress more quickly and is more likely to lead to a competitive advantage.


Ways to tackle the Monkey.


There are many ways leaders can focus their teams to operate this way. Here are some tips:

  1. Before you ask your team "How are you progressing?" ask "What have you learnt since we last met?".

  2. Ask your team to list the assumptions their solution depends onto be successful. Test their criticality by asking "What would happen if the opposite was true?".

  3. Explore assumptions with real data, not opinions.

  4. Tell authentic stories about your own failures, learnings and pivot points.

  5. Celebrate and reward brave evidence-based calls to abandon or re-direct projects.


HR leading by design.


HR also has a role in hard-wiring systems such as reward and talent selection to encourage these behaviours.


Performance plans do not have to penalise non-achievement if project re-direction delivers greater benefits to the company overall.  Rewards for discoveries that lead to better resource allocation should be given equal weighting to achievement of outcomes. Google in their reward principles indicate that people will be rewarded for 'extreme risk taking that is aligned with strategic goals'. This sends a strong message that well aligned exploration is valued as much as delivery of outcomes.


Talent selection can also scan for candidates more likely to pursue bold challenges and when required, pivot on their ambitions. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO is known for selecting people based upon their ability to solve complex problems - not their experience or tertiary qualifications. After hiring people who have this ability Tesla deploys them in small teams that sit 'cheek-to-cheek' to hasten the solutions.


These are just two of many ways HR can design for agility. It could be time for HR teams to revisit their systems and test what assumptions they are making that could get in the way of success.


Jennifer Pangas is the founder of HRHack.com.au - Design thinking and HR Expertise to position HR for the future.





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