“If you think you understand a problem, make sure you are not deceiving yourself,” said Albert Einstein to Reg Revans, who took a career swerve from research physicist to developing the only proven theory of management development – action learning.
A review of recent UNLEASH articles and stories reveals some clear patterns and trends in the professional fields of human capital and HRM, driven in large part by the need to respond to the acceleration in the evolution of new ways of working triggered by the global pandemic. Despite the gloomy cloud of ‘the Great Resignation’, the future may be bright for those who are re-shaping the world of work.
Of course, there are now great powers accessible at the fingertips of HR professionals with tech and HR tools that can crunch data across the full gamut of activities such as recruitment, onboarding, payroll, compliance, workforce scheduling, and the learning experience.
And whilst there may be a scramble to find the latest, biggest and fastest tool for the job, even if just to keep up with the competition in the talent battle, these tend to be tools which help us to solve puzzles rather than explore mysteries for the future.
So puzzles usually have known solutions or answers. As we seek to solve puzzles, we become drawn to puzzle-related questions such as:
- What is the demographic profile of employees by job role and region?
- What has been the labor turnover rate throughout the pandemic?
- How many of the workforce have completed onboarding training and which learners are at the top of the leaderboard?
- What would be the impact on payroll of implementing the proposed pay review?
Your HR superpower
Like solving crossword puzzles, Sudoku or a Rubik’s cube these puzzles have a known solution that requires problem-solving ability, and those who are the best puzzle solvers seek out the tools, short-cuts, and techniques.
However I believe if we dare to reach beyond the power of the puzzle-solving tools it may be possible to acquire ‘superpowers’, but this requires a rather different ability – that of the Mystery Explorer.
Does this sound esoteric in contrast to being across the numbers on the HR dashboard? Well – the term was coined in a discussion I had this year with founding father of HR, Professor Dave Ulrich. We were wrestling with how to capture the essence of a key quality we felt was going to become more prominent for the future of work and the business of HR professionals and organizational leadership.
Solutions vs mysteries
Applying a smart puzzle-solving approach to a puzzle makes sense. However, the competitive edge and engagement of the workforce is more likely to come from recognizing the difference between puzzles and those ‘mysteries’ which may be critical for the future of the business and its people, but for which there is no playbook, training course or manual of instruction.
Understanding when and how to tackle a puzzle or a mystery is a great starting point:
|Puzzle Solving||Exploring Mysteries|
|Required when…||Solution is known||No single solution exists|
|Primary agenda…||Solve problems, achieve clarity||Generate options; be curious, gain engagement|
|Approach to action…||Set direction with confidence; find answers; set targets||Share problems to co-create direction; focus on process to sift options|
|Use of information…||Rely on analytical skills to access and test data||Rely on the ability to understand and influence human systems|
|Starts with…||Content: what needs to be done||Context: why do things need to happen|
|Use of power…||Demonstrate power by getting things done||Empower others to share in how things are done|
|Approach to ambiguity…||Resolve uncertainty; reduce ambiguity||Harness uncertainty; embrace the unknown|
|Emphasis…||Detect how to resolve a challenge||Guide future events by changing patterns|
|Problem solving by…||Solving paradoxes; seeking the right solution||Navigating paradoxes by accepting and living with tension|
|People perspective…||People are primarily a resource||People are part of a social and organizational system|
|Personal drivers…||Create certainty downwards||Encourage expression of doubt upwards|
|Capability is created by…||Training; techniques||Collaboration; teams; crossing boundaries|
Adapted from Hale, R and Ulrich, D. How Leaders Lead Post-Pandemic: Explore Mysteries More than Solve Puzzles, March 23, 2021
In order to formulate a question around a mystery that is worthy of the time and attention of leaders and team members I suggest starting with the words ‘How can we…?’ or ‘How can I…’ This focuses attention on options and exploration (how), on the art of the possible (can) and accountability (we or I).
Asking the right question
So let me provide an example of a question that may not have been explicitly articulated in the recent UNLEASH case studies and interviews held with world-leading experts:
How can we provide highly valued support to ensure an excellent employee experience is delivered for all of our distributed workforce?
This is in effect the question explored through research before considering whether or not you should hire a head of remote. Sure hiring a head of remote may provide one solution, but what is the challenge or problem that this is seeking to solve? In this example, the challenge concerns workforce engagement, a shift in the balance of power in the psychological contract beyond the legal employment contract, and a social expectation that employment experience is integrated with lifestyle choices and personal values.
By tackling this question it is possible to address some of the challenges articulated in the Lewis report showing that only 19% of Gen Z would work for a company that doesn’t share their values.
Whilst the latest tech platform or toolkit may be highly effective, it can also be very seductive. Being seduced may feel good in the short-term, however the risk is we neglect, at our peril, adaptation to our specific organizational context and the human dimension. We jump to the solution before having fully explored the nature of the problem. This is exacerbated by the current urgency to build back better post-pandemic and the ease of access to proposed solutions, data, and ‘experts.’
What are the big mysteries in your organization – those issues that if not addressed in the next 12 months will put the business at risk?
Are you a strategic and visionary Mystery Explorer? Or do you prefer being a busy bee solving puzzles?
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