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The second installment of our series aimed at shifting your innovation focus (®)

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Let’s recap.

Executives believe they know everything. They’re paid to live that delusion. One of the things they believe they know everything about is people.

As shown in the previous installment, they don’t. You don’t.

Nobody does.

Because humans are chaotic. Like butterflies and hurricanes chaotic. Someone who knew only slightly more than badconsultant once told us that if 5 pool balls are moving at once on the surface of the table, it’s impossible to predict precisely where they will end up. A close approximation, yes… You know, like “the 8 ball will end up near the top corner pocket, the 3 will be between it and the cue ball…” etc and so forth. But not exactly.

Think about the number of variables at play with 5 pool balls. Now think about the number of variables at play in your own life. Your physiological, mental, spiritual, social variables. The social, political, environmental, economic, technological variables. Now add in every other person you interact with. And what about the random interactions, your fellow drivers in traffic, for example? Is there any way that you could even hope to predict anything about yourself with exactitude, let alone a body of people.

People are chaotic.

But think about the last time you discussed anything to do with people management or leadership.

Did it sound anything like this?

“If we introduce a productivity based quarterly bonus, people will undoubtedly become more productive”

Executives – never ones for strong mathematic skill

[unless it comes to CFOs and accounting, when they move beyond simple skills to sheer creative riffing]

somehow are reduced to the most simple of mathematical equations. If we do X then people will do Y.

1+1 = 2

Only it doesn’t. When it comes to people, 1+1 = cheese. Or some cheese with a little bit of wildebeest. With a dose of syphilis on the side. And random acts of hyper-generosity to small charities that care for lemurs who have been displaced by the introduction of Starbucks in their native Madagascar.

Doing things to people and expecting exact, predictable results is a waste of time.

Better to at least get the close approximation happening. This is the essence of People Innovation (®). So, let’s come to the first question we asked in the previous installment.

1) Who is your ideal employee?

This sounds simple, doesn’t it. One who does what I say without complaining and for minimum wage possible.

[Sooner or later, the Chinese and Indians are going to rise up and you will be in a world of hurt]

Well… Kind of… Sort of… Actually, not at all. If you still believe that, you had better find a time machine and head back to a little earlier than the Great Depression – or possibly even earlier when slaves still roamed the land as far as their chains would let them. If you hadn’t noticed, several cultural revolutions have taken place since then and, during each one, executives haven’t quite seen the wood for the trees. A little while ago, we wrote about the most significant diversity issue facing EVERY corporation. If you read that piece and still believe that things are just going to go on as they always have

[please join our competitor consulting houses]

then we really do believe a) you are missing a key capability to recognize critical aspects of the environment in which your business operates; and/or b) you have an ego easily as large as a minor planetary system. Either way, your business faces a long, slow demise and we suggest you read no further.

For those who do want to try something original, we want you to think back to your last scoping meeting. Product Design. Market Readiness. Brand Concept. Store Layout. Got one? OK. After the initial banter, badinage and bluster, you doubtless described what you were trying to achieve. If you’re good at this stuff, you would likely have worked to a set of Critical Success Factors, Unique Selling Points or Key Opinion Linkages. You may even have written a short and pithy vision statement for the product, campaign, market or store.

Now, answer this… When have you EVER done that for people? You see, that’s where everything breaks down. When an Executive says

[!WARNING! Bullshit alert]

“People are our greatest asset”, just which ‘people’ is he talking about? The local bums drinking rotgut wine from brown paper bags? The rich on their yachts in the Mediterranean? Teenagers being lured into selling crack cocaine?

We don’t think so.

The people who are your greatest asset are… your most productive employees.

Is that such a shocker? Unfortunately in most corporations, the answer is “Yes!”

But can it really be that simple? No, not quite. Let’s add a couple of other aspects.

Yesterday, I made $50,000 profit. Everyone else made $10,000. I am your most productive employee.

I’m your greatest asset.

Tomorrow, I only work one hour and make $5,000 profit. Everyone else makes $100,000 each. I am no longer your most productive employee.

I’m no longer your greatest asset.

So, let’s try a rebuild:

[cue Powerpoint wipe and snazzy build transition]

The people who are your greatest asset are… those employees most likely to maintain and grow their productivity in the future.

Just as you would invest in companies most likely to maintain and grow earned value in the future, it makes sense that you should most value those employees that are going to drive that value. Look around you at work… How many of your co-colleague conspirators are treading water, taking home a salary for merely turning up? Do they look like an asset?

That’s the problem with that ugly, disgusting homily about people being a company’s greatest asset – and a clue to why it makes us spit every time we say it – it’s completely inclusive

[and so very, VERY baby-boomer – can I hear you say kumbaya?]

of everyone in the corporation. Which isn’t fair on the minority of very high performers who carry the burden of so many very low performers on their shoulders. Think about it. If everyone is your greatest asset, then why should anyone be willing to put in the extra talent, energy, time, imagination or innovation to take your business onwards and upwards? By stating everyone is your greatest asset, you diminish the willingness of your ideal employees – who are truly your greatest asset – and worse, perpetuate those employees who are a drain on your value.

“People are our greatest asset” is a recipe for averageness.

So, we have the first part of the answer to our first question. For now, we’ll take a pause to let it sink in. In the next installment, we’ll be delving (ever so slightly) into the second half of the answer.