Beyond HR

This post is a summary of the talk about collaboration and change that Neil Morrison and I gave at Louisiana SHRM 2014 – on April 9th in Baton Rouge.


Neil and I used Evernote as the place to store and share ideas as we pulled the threads of our talk together. I’ve used Evernote to share my own stuff between different devices for two years now, but this was the first project where I’ve used it as a tool for collaboration between people. We used it to share stuff at distance and to work on different elements of our talk in the same too together. It works – try it.

Another way we prepped was to get to know something new about each other, it turns out we both like table tennis. We found a table set up in Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar, and spent a great fun couple of hours trying to out ping pong one another. We enjoyed some local Abita beer and the company of a couple of locals who briefly teamed up to take us on. An important part of doing some work together (if you can call what we did, work), is the investment in enjoying each other’s company.


The very lovely Robin Schooling introduced us – and then we gave people another chance to see our world famous video. Huge thanks to James Smith for excellent camera and production work. We also briefly introduced each other – and I’ll come back to that later.

Beyond HR

The main thrust of our talk was about collaboration and the importance of relentless, small change. HR and others often plan, invest and obsess about change, and while we recognise the importance of seeing the bigger picture, we think that lots of small change can make a big difference. We also think that HR could be, and indeed sometimes is, best placed to facilitate relentless small change. Small is the new significant, as David Zinger puts it. What’s the least I can do today to make a positive impact? I ask myself this question often, to remind me that change is ongoing, and doesn’t have to be big to matter.

I shared some research on experimentation, collaboration and relationships drawn from The Year Without Pants and Breakpoint and Beyond. I talked about why this stuff is important, and why it doesn’t happen as often as we would like. Neil then shared some fascinating science about how our reptilian, mammalian and human brains work. ‘We don’t have a human brain so we’re using Doug’s as the closest thing we could find’. Nice one Neil!

Neil spoke about the importance of SHED, not as the garden retreat where men scurry to, but rather:

  • Sleep
  • Hydration
  • Exercise
  • Diet

The importance of taking care of yourself cannot be overstated and often when we are operating and leading in periods of change, this vital stuff goes by the wayside – leaving us diminished. Neil acknowledged that even when we are aware of this stuff, and well taken care, of, we can’t perform at our optimum level for long – typically it’s around 90 minutes. I told the tale of The Prisoner, which is about how decisions that can at first seem fair, are often far from it, particularly when we are rushed, and not taking good care of ourselves.

Neil also talked about the SCARF model, key things we think about and react to in life which can enhance or inhibit our ability to collaborate and function effectively.

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

When you feel that one or more of these things is being threatened, brain wise you are likely to retreat to your mammalian and reptile brains, and become defensive. Can we stop this? Probably not, but we can share this stuff among colleagues and be aware of it. That way we have a frame of reference for when things go wrong. We asked people in the audience to think about stuff that gets in the way of change and collaboration. Here’s what they told us:

Incentives & rewards, power struggles, lack of collaboration, rapid growth, money and people, blame and shame (try looking in the mirror), communication, silos, trust, competing interests, heavy workload.

We shared a couple of examples from our different perspectives of small changes working, and not working and where relevant we threaded the things people told us into our stories.

Neil finished with the story of how Ben Ainslie helped turn around the USA America’s Cup team who were 8-1 down against New Zealand and managed to recover and eventually beat New Zealand by 44 seconds in the final game of the series. The turnaround came as a result of Ainslie’s incredible tactical ability, and the many many small changes he made before, during and after each race. A racing yacht depends on many small things in order to be able to cut the right line through the water, and Ainslie is able to break down the strategy (let’s win this) into its component parts. It was fun being able to close out our session telling an American audience that a Brit helped save their bacon too!

The audience seemed to enjoy the session and we enjoyed putting it together and delivering it too. Teaming up with Neil taught me a lot, particularly around different ways to prepare. After the session people told us they enjoyed our willingness to use some humour (largely at each other’s expense) and they liked the way we reflected on work experiences that had not gone as well as we might have liked. People also told us how they enjoyed the ebb and flow of the session – that feedback was lovely as Neil and I had built a loose framework on which to hang the talk, and intentionally left space, for room to grow.

Reading List

As well as our own experiences, we drew on ideas from the following books as we prepared our talk:


Thank You

I want to hop back – almost to the beginning when I wrote about introductions. As we prepared our talk we agreed that we would each say a few words about each other by way of introduction. Neil went first and said some very nice things about me, some drawn from his experiences, and some drawn from feedback from others on Twitter. Next it was my turn. It’s no secret that I get very excited and a little nervous before I speak – in fact I was literally jumping around the room before the start. In my excitement, my intro of Neil centred largely around how much I appreciate that fact that we disagree often, and that disagreement is founded on respect. Now that’s all well and good, and I do sincerely appreciate that part of our friendship – and there is more to it than that.

I first encountered Neil when he was writing anonymously as TheHRD. I met him in a pub and at the time he was known as Theo. It was all very mysterious. Our next virtual encounter came when Neil asked for help for a friend and I responded. Once theHRD was unmasked we began to see each other more often, and developed a friendship that made the humour in our talk come very naturally. We’ve been camping together (separate tents mind you), got drunk together, shared experiences together, and yes – disagreed together. I’ve met Neil’s family, including his Dad, and through that encounter I see a lot of why Neil and I click. Neil’s willingness to team up with me and invest in our session means a lot to me. Thank you Neil, and thank you Louisiana SHRM.

What Did You Do Before

The old man sat next to me on the slow train into London. Like so many others on board I was passing time staring at a tiny screen.

The old man asked, ‘What did you do before you had a mobile phone?’ ‘I stared out of the window, read, sketched, wrote and sometimes talked’ I said, and so, twenty five minutes before reaching Victoria station, our conversation began. 

The old man studied American history, ‘Abraham Lincoln forever, and all that,’ he said. Turns out he’s a Packers fan and so we talked of cheese heads, Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks, Raiders and more. ‘Ive never been to the United States’ the old man told me, and I explained that’s where I was journeying to. ‘I like the sound of Baton Rouge, it has a nice name’, he said. And so, somewhat surprised I said ‘that’s where I’m heading.’ 

We talked about the trip I took to New York City with my late father. I told the old man about the sights we saw and added, ‘we even went to see the ice hockey.’ ‘The Rangers?’ Asked the old man. ‘Indeed’ I said, and we spoke of sport and our separate experiences of listening to US forces radio bouncing crackly live signals from various sports on the medium wave.

With Victoria approaching, and with twenty five minutes passing like twenty five seconds, we shook hands and wished each other well. He continued his journey to the midlands to watch Wolverhampton Wanderers take on Peterborough, and I headed for the airport, to catch my flight to Baton Rouge.

What did you do before you had a mobile phone?

Simulacrum : Looking Beyond the Data to the Human

‘Simulacrum – a likeness or simulation that has the appearance but not the substance of the thing it resembles.’ Kit White

Spring MagnoliasHere is an extract from a water colour sketch I made of some spring magnolias. It bears a likeness and simulation to one of my favourite flowers, and it is quite clearly not the substance of the flower. You can’t smell the flower, or touch it.

The notion of a simulacrum not only applies to art, but to all other things as well. I think there’s a reason why, even with all the technology now available to us, that face-to-face contact remains so important to us. That reason is the substance beyond the simulacrum.

Occupying the same physical space is transformatively different from any other shared experience. Seeing eye movements, sensing the air move as you and others physically shift, talk and laugh. All this stuff gets you closer to the substance. I once worked for a boss who used a cost cutting mantra as a reason to avoid getting the team together face to face, for a whole year. I recall few things about that time, but I clearly remember how much the team unraveled over that period, and though we shared information and data, just how little teamwork we did.

All too often, we lazily assume the data that is placed before us at work, is the real thing. It isn’t, yet we often use that data to make decisions that affect people’s lives in work and beyond. It’s scary enough when we unquestioningly decide to increase widget production without checking the figures, but when we make these choices about people, we risk pushing disrespect to a whole new level.

It’s so temptingly simple to make decisions based on a set of numbers. Everyone knows and uses the phrase popularised by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” yet we seem to have a scarily easy time believing the data when it’s placed before us in a work context. I think this is at least partly because we measure that which is easy to measure, not that which is important. And I think this is partly where HRTech is currently failing us.

When making decisions about people, working to get beyond the simulacrum really matters. And in order to do this, we need access to so much more than stats and data as we currently think about them. How might that look?

John’s performance rating is a 2 out of 5; Doug’s is only a 3. John gets the pay rise and all that glitters, I get told to pull my socks up.  What’s behind my 3? Do you know or care? Maybe I was a dead last 5 the last time we looked and boy that divorce was tearing me apart but you know, I knuckled down and hauled my previously productive ass all the way back up to a 3 again.

Here’s another dilemma. Good work often reveals itself slowly. You think you don’t have the time for slow so you push for data, push for fast and make do. Those that keep up survive, the rest, well you don’t care because you don’t have the time, remember?

Wherever possible I like to invest as least as much time looking and thinking as I do making.

I know you think you’re too busy to look and think and what the hell it doesn’t matter anyway. And maybe it doesn’t. In which case, don’t create any pretence about it, just openly treat people as pieces of raw data and see how that works out for you. If it does matter though, try investing the time to gather, build and understand a richer picture so that HR has the data it needs in order to do what it should do best. Help people make work better.

A version of this post was first published at