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Snakes & Ladders

Until fairly recently I viewed my career pretty much like a game of snakes and ladders. You throw the dice, put your name in a hat, apply for a job and then someone else / the fates / skill / knowledge / experience determine whether or not you get to take part / get the job.  Sometimes you win and move up a ladder, sometimes you lose and stay where you are (or slide down a snake).

But what if we need to start rewarding a different way of working and viewing our careers so that it isn’t just the people who can move up or cling to their ladders the best that are the ‘winners’.

The Big Project
When the Big Project rules it is difficult to see a different way. My simple version goes something like this –  There is a problem, we assess the options to solve it, we have meetings / write reports, one Big Solution is approved, it is implemented, it is evaluated,  the new becomes the norm, new problem arises, we move on.  This change is predicted, it is structured and planned, most of the time there are big costs – in terms of both time, money & (possibly) egos.  Many, many, reports & meetings are required.  There is not a lot of flexibility because once the course is set it’s a big ship to turn around.

Working to implement this kind of change requires a very particular set of skills.  If the Big Project & Big Solution goes wrong there is so much invested in it that people may even lose their job or at least credibility.  However, the definition of success is defined from the beginning and easy to see and, therefore, easy to reward.

But is this still an efficient way of working? Should we still be rewarding this? Is this way of approaching the problem too long winded, bureaucratic and likely to be out of date before the project is eventually delivered?

An alternative
I love the idea of Trojan Mice, which I first came across a few years ago. If we take the position that the organisation is a complex organism that we cannot, or should not try to, control – the Big Project approach makes little sense to bring about long term change.  Instead we see “vibrant communities and we can set about releasing a powerful force – the imagination and ingenuity of our people which is our true competitive advantage.”  (you can read more here

In HR we are as susceptible to the Big Project approach as anyone.  We can have a splashy launch, a big awards ceremony, a big conference, whizzy new tech – but the test I always apply is the ‘So what?’ test.  We had a big conference, we got in speakers, people listened, everyone had a great time, the ‘happy sheets’ were full of smiley faces & awesome comments – but… so what? If we ask again in a couple of weeks what can people remember and what, if anything, has changed for them?

In contrast small, focussed efforts (Trojan Mice) can have more lasting effects. Recently I have experimented with small, targeted opportunities to very specific groups, challenging them to do things differently.  Instead of detailed planning, reports & meetings I put my energy into seeking out different ways of working or learning – creating smaller events for targeted groups.  It’s taken a while to build momentum, but now other people are picking this approach up and running with it.

What has this got to do with reward?
How do we reward people in the world that can’t be controlled? If my objectives were set months ago, but along the way I have needed to pivot on some of my ideas – is that failure or success?

In traditional terms it was probably a failure that no one turned up to the second networking event that I organised – #hrpizza.  However, I can genuinely say that I learnt more from that than I have from any of the subsequent events where lots of people have turned up.  How would we reward this? Is it a failure because no one showed up (pretty vital for a networking event!) or success because I learned what I needed to make subsequent events a success?

In increasingly open workplaces, where (potentially) anyone can deploy Trojan Mice to make a difference – we need to rethink how we reward that behaviour & encourage it, especially when all the ladders and snakes are in a pile on the floor.


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