Monday, March 27, 2006

Not Even Half True

"The best companies have the best people."

This old business axiom exists with solidity-of-position -- like an element on the Periodic Table. You can find it...about where it says that "Employees should leave their personal lives at home," "If you let them work from home, you'll lose both control and productivity" and "They'll work harder for more money." Everyone knows it. But is it, well, true? I don't think so.

For example, companies have been doing everything to find the best employees, from psychometric testing, to credit checks, to work simulations, to individual and team interviews, to having them, um, you know, in that tiny paper cup. Having been in HR and tried these and other trusty tricks, I can tell you that assessing talent and skill is a smidge credentials-checking and a whole lotta gut and a whopping helping of crapshoot.

Why does so much of what we're being fed sound so plausible and offer so little? Why is so much of what passes for business wisdom (how shall I put it delicately?) poo-poo-ca (a business term I adopted from my young nieces who are never fooled by anything)?

According to authors Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer, in their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, it devolves down to simple ciphers -- knowing and doing. Do it without knowing (what or why you're doing it) -- you're burnt toast. Do it without knowing enough -- you may wind up just toast (though, perhaps a little crispy).

In my work, I see smart, savvy business owners take the same actions over and over again, like they’re on a bad ride in an amusement park. When asked about their thinking and evidence behind their actions, they pause, stare and get very quiet. Sometimes its “We’ve always done it this way,” or “I read Blink! (the Malcolm Gladwell book about trusting your intuition), and I decided I needed to go for more gut-level decision-making.” Sometimes, a micro-business owner will try to template his business after a huge Fortune 500 company with tons of resources and lots more time to recover after an error or change in market forces.

My thought? Think! Ask better and better questions (and question everything – even what works -- to learn “why.”). Conventional wisdom is, by its very nature, designed to maintain status quo and even common sense is suspect in a business environment that’s anything but common.