People and culture first

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In true agile transformations for a company we think about three cornerstones – Strategy, capabilities and culture. All three need to be designed together, aligned and enabling each other to create a true agile transformation. Ideally they walk together but too often i see culture as the last piece to come in place. Peter Drucker said culture eats strategy for breakfast, but this is partially true. Ideally we serve them all as three separate dishes at breakfast in harmony and not separated for lunch and dinner. Think of a english breakfast with beans, eggs and ham on the same plate. But often culture come as a (too) late night meal, while the company already have lost their talented people due to bad or no culture. People is one of the four (also code, customers and brand) assets of a software company and probably the most important. So this article is about killing the Human Resources (HR) in favour of People and Culture (P&C). Let me explain.

HR was a new discipline during the industrial revolution where we acknowledged people as a core asset of a company. It’s base came from the thinking of management as a command and control function to lead the work, while HR was supposed to keep people at bay while managers where busy commanding. Today HR are fully occupied with operational stuff such as hiring, firing and pay out salaries when they also should do people development and motivation (aka culture).

Companies today have a much shorter lifetime than twenty years ago. Four of five startups die within three years, and a startup is said having three years to prove its existence for the sponsors. Due to this we must be much faster and more effective than before. So here in the twenty first century we now have Lean and Agile, helping us as the new standard for how we stay alive and become more effective, but HR has still not a clue. We need to have this in mind when we want to change our way of working and becoming more effective.

I once was hired by a small travel agency in Sweden in the same time as the company was acquired by a big international travel agency. The first week in the company i got a sponsor learning me all about how we lived by Lean thinking, values, customers and it was all about US, not the company. My sponsor was a part of the People and culture department. Two years later the merger was fully done and P&C was renamed to HR, adapting the new company culture with small decisions needed to go to top management before execution and a traditional hierarchical structure. Later the Swedish CEO quit. One day i will ask him why, but i know he tried to not wearing tie and parked his Volvo far away from the other managers Mercedeses at the international HQ. I tried for a year then i also quit.

A couple of years later i was hired as an Agile coach for a big and old Swedish company. We tried to do an agile transformation without engaging HR. We kept hiring people with a non agile mindset and fired those who argued. As consultant fighting for Agile, people felt trust in me and could come to me with complaints about the mis-management. I stressed this anonymously to my non-Swedish manager too much and also left a year.

In both cases it was a cultural clash. Motivation is why we stay in our companies regardless of culture. Swedes are motivated by quality of life while other nationalities often see their own success and performance as motivation. In both cases it was international managers involved and if you mix them up with Swedes it will be a clash in the cultural dimension Hofstede is calling Masculinity. Internationals live for working while Swedes work for living (according to Hofstede) and that’s why Swedes don’t mix up so well with internationals in a agile setup.

Finally a closer look at the symbolism of the word HR if we want to be more effective. Resources? If you google on the word you get a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by organization in order to function effectively. I argue that if we, the people, should be able to do our work more effective we don’t want to be mixed up with structure capital. Count me out being a company resource along with servers, licenses and finances. Instead we need to have values to live by, for an example Honesty, Integrity, Trust, Loyalty and Fairness, typical Swedish core values. Perhaps i am overreacting but i think the choice of words are important when we want to implement a culture and this disqualifies HR.

Now i work as an Agile sherpa for a startup, too small for a dedicated HR function but soon having one as we are growing. The CEO is Swedish and my closest manager an international. I will not fail this time and coach the organisation in culture first so we can become a true effective (was agile) organisation. Welcome P&C –  die HR, die!

/Ove Holmberg

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