Today I’d like to make an observation about wasted effort in any work environment. Nothing is perfect of course and so there is always room for improvement. Sometimes we can observe effort that has no lack of good intentions yet was misdirected and wasteful. There are “feel good” initiatives, and we often see common mistakes organizations and individuals make in trying to satisfy poorly conceived or off-target objectives that simply don’t satisfy the larger goal. A lot of this waste and error goes into something we’ll call the “False Solution.” It may look great on the surface (but just as often doesn’t); has sanction and support from the top; and the political sway is going its way. But it’s essentially an empty vessel that does not deliver the intended business or technical benefit as painfully evidenced over time.
Here, we’ll look at a very simple, yet illuminating, example of a false solution. By examining a relatively contained organizational risk we’ll be in a position to consider a much more universal scale of risk posed by the false solution as this blog moves forward. But at any scale, we need to examine the dangers in mounting false solutions, and how to expose and avoid false solutions before they’re mounted. For, false solutions not only fail to deliver, they consume resources and time such that they hold real solutions in abeyance.
We’re going to use a Human Resources department in this example. We’re not picking on HR – this is just one HR department that serves very well in highlighting the pitfalls of the false solution. Also, the general product software type in our example serves many organizations very well when properly matched to needs and expectations. It just wasn’t the appropriate solution in this case. Think about what happened in the “solution” below and apply these considerations to your own initiatives.
A mid-sized organization of several hundred people, XYZ Corporation, dreaded their annual employee appraisal and review process. They used a fairly comprehensive word processing template – a form – with an instruction set from HR on how to use the form. There were also clear expectations for the content that was required for an appropriate appraisal. And, HR made use of reminders through e-mail and staff meetings to bump the process along. Naturally there were the usual organization’s handbooks available too.
However, the HR department had a difficult time getting managers to start the process on time. This meant that draft appraisals weren’t submitted when due. Of course, submission of completed appraisals often was not made on time, and there was a further problem in that submissions failed to meet organizational standards for completeness and quality. HR’s take on the situation was that many managers “don’t know how to write,” and stated this many times. Also, HR felt that there was a lack of overall “control” surrounding the whole process.
Automation is Good – Right?
HR made a sale to the senior management team; that an “automated” software application for the management and production of employee appraisals was necessary. The software had templates for appraisals that proposed language, based on keyword input. Entire sentences and paragraphs were generated – hence HR’s “solution” for managers who “don’t know how to write.” The appraisal software generated automatic reminders that went out (through the same e-mail system as before) as ticklers for start of the process, submission of drafts to supervisors, and submission of final appraisals to HR. (The advantage of this auto-reminder capability was largely offset by a pre-existing ability to set up a schedule of reminders: This capacity existed in the organization’s native e-mail application; a suggestion to do this did not fit the “sale” and was left unexplored).
The software also had report capability to track and show status of appraisal drafts, versions, finals, and where in the production process things stood. Reports could be generated by individual, by department, by dates, etc. Hence, HR felt that they had a solution for tardy start and submission of appraisals – a means of “control.” Of course the vendor was a major player in this sales dynamic, and found that they had an audience already biased in terms of need, expectations, solution, and delivery. The vendor described a wonderful appraisal cycle whereby managers would enter a few relevant keywords, resulting in whole paragraphs and tracts spilling out, tightly matched to job specifications and individual performance. “Ticklers” would be automatically generated by the system to bump along each draft for approval as the process moved along. Ultimately, a comprehensive batch of final-form appraisals would be submitted to HR on or before the due dates, for rollup and delivery, of all completed, quality-assured appraisals to senior management.
So, what happened in the matter of employee appraisals at XYZ Corporation? Stay tuned…