Managing By Cliches, Part 2: Let the System Work for You (not vice versa)

Michael Dorn and Robert O'Reilly as Worf and G...

Naming an HR database after Star Trek villains wasn't a good omen

This is the second in our series of posts around the idea of “managing by cliches.”

During the past few weeks, I’ve been involved in a number of on-line and real-life discussions about the merits of various performance evaluation systems.  One colleague described a particular system as being powerful but “difficult to learn and implement.”  This brought mind past experiences implementing unwieldy systems — times when it seemed that rather than the system working for us, we were working for the system (never a desirable state of affairs).

The Klingon System

Once about a time, I worked for a Fortune-500 company that chose to implement “Klingon” as its HRIS database.  OK — that wasn’t really its name (though it was, in fact, scarily closer to that than I’d care to admit).
Here’s the good part: the HR VP conducted a rigorous, systematic selection process and involved a wide range of stakeholders.  Here’s the bad part: She chose Klingon — and everything else from that point forward was pretty much a disaster.

I’m hardly a Star Trek expert, but I believe the Klingon’s spoke their own language.  If that’s correct, it’s a very appropriate moniker for this system.  Suffice to say, it’s not intuitive (for anyone) to have to remember to go from Screen M7 to Screen G4 to Screen R11 in order to enter an employee’s name and address.  (It only got worse from there).  Reporting was a nightmare.  HR’s “buy-in” was challenging, to say the least — to say nothing of the rest of the organization (i.e., our clients).  Not surprisingly, they balked at providing data for a byzantine system that, in their view, provided no value-added management information back to them.  (Actually, they claimed they’d have been better off if we had stayed with managing employee data via Excel spreadsheet — and they weren’t far off in their assessment, I’m afraid).

Even less surprisingly, they felt strongly enough about it that, after a two-year implementation, they managed to bring about “regime change” (i.e., they let go of the entire division HR staff responsible for burdening them with what they rightly saw as a time- and resource-eating burden with very little value).

Ouch — a tough lesson to learn, but an important one. Once you start working for the system, it’s time to step back and re-assess how the situation has gone upside-down.  (See prior post on “Knowing When To Cut Your Losses” — we could have used that perspective before they cut us).

Learning Flexibility

Here’s a related story — with a happier ending.  A while back, I was working with a client on an employee relations issue (two valued members of their team weren’t getting along).  Their senior manager was upset, and she was particularly perplexed because the issue created a quandry for her regarding the employees’ performance evaluations (i.e., Bob reported to Ted and was concerned that due to their dispute, Ted wouldn’t be able to conduct a fair evaluation of his work (which was probably a pretty accurate perception of the situation, sad to say).

In our discussion, I suggested that they simply not conduct a performance review this year for Bob (i.e., their pay isn’t tied to performance — which is a separate issue for another day — so, Bob wouldn’t be penalized in any way by not getting an evaluation that year).  The senior manager was amazed by my “solution.” “Can we really do that?” she asked, hopefully and hesitantly.  When I explained that the “rules” were hers (she’s the owner) and they were put in place to help her manage the company, not to unduly restrict her from doing what needed to be done (or in this case, not done), I’ve never seen a manager so relieved.  Happily, this was one case where the “system” (rules) didn’t run the company, the company ran (or was served by) the rules (or, more exactly, by ignoring their rules where it made sense to do so).

Your Stories

Have you had similar experiences — either where the system ended up running you, or where you corrected course and brought the system back under appropriate control before it was too late?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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One response to “Managing By Cliches, Part 2: Let the System Work for You (not vice versa)

  1. Pingback: Managing By Cliches, Part 1: Knowing When To Cut Your Losses | HR Perspectives

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