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Top down or bottom up strategy?

In a recent discussion around HR strategy, the question arose about where to start.  That is, if you’ve bought into moving into the digital age, where do you begin.  The flip answer from the host of the event, a large consulting agency, was to hire them (and my flip reply is to ask whether you want newly minted MBAs following a process designed to be ‘heavy’, or someone coming in light and fast with an adaptive approach ;). But then they got serious, and responded that you shouldn’t be reactive to people’s stated needs, and you needed data to identify what problems are crucial.  And I wasn’t satisfied with that, for two related reasons.  In short, I thought that was still reactive and that it wasn’t going to help you focus ahead, and that you needed top-down to complement bottom up.

This was buttressed by a post pointed out to me by my ITA colleagues that was arguing a good design strategy was to find out what people needed. And I’m reminded of the quote by Steve Jobs that you can’t just give people what they want, because by the time you do, they’ve changed their minds.  And just finding what people need and doing it is a bit reactive, it seems to me, regardless.  Even, to be honest, finding the company’s biggest barriers, and addressing them, isn’t a sufficient response.  It’s a good one, but it’s not enough.

Interestingly, an HR Director sitting next to me was nodding her head during that response about the data. So afterward I asked her what sort of data she had in mind. I asked about both survey data, and business metrics, and she indicated both (and anything else ;).  And I think that’s a good basis. But not a sufficient one.

If you look at most design in the real world, you’ll see that designers cycle between top-down and bottom-up.  It helps to check that you’re indeed draining the swamp, but also to ensure you’re not getting eaten by alligators.  And that’s the point I want to make.

I’m (obviously) a believer in frameworks. I want conceptual clarity. And I don’t want best practices, I want to abstract best principles and recontextualize them.  But I also believe you need to check how you’re going, and regularly test.  There are some overarching results that should be incorporated: culture, innovation, performance support, etc. And they can be instituted in ways that address problems yet also develop your ability.

So I do think collecting data on what’s going on, and identifying barriers is important.  But if you’re not also looking at the horizon and figuring out where you’re going in the longer term, you could be metaphorically ensuring no flat tires on a trip to the wrong neighborhood.  My short answer to their question would’ve been to document where you are, and where you want to get, and then figure out which of the top issues the data indicate sets you on a path to address the rest and build your capability and credibility.

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