Thursday, April 25, 2013

Four Pitfalls To Lean Start Up in HR Products

Can human beings in the work place ever be guinea pigs? 

I recently started an HR data company. We are using a proprietary artificial intelligence tool to help us discover critical human resource information that can help both the employer and the employee. At least that’s the idea. Our first product is in the social recruiting space and we are in the process of testing our assumptions. Tune in later and we’ll let you know if we are on to something.

I have been in the HR products business for awhile (longer than I like to admit – I remember using punch cards in graduate school) and know a thing or two about product development. When my partner and I formed our new company and decided on our first product we also opted to follow the product development guidelines espoused by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Start Up

Lean start up techniques were more than a fad concept we wanted to try. We really were lean (as in we had no money) and wanted to be very smart about what we built and how much we spent building it.  We are also building something no one is doing today (more about that later) and we weren't sure that employees and employers would adopt the concept. Lean Start Up seemed like the perfect answer. And it was. But there are four pitfalls that need to be addressed if you are going to follow Lean Start Up processes in the HR space.

These four pitfalls start with a core concept of the Lean Start Up process called the MVP – Minimum Viable Product.  In a nutshell (he wrote a whole book about this so excuse me if I miss a few of the details) you invest in building only enough of the product to test your major assumptions. In our case – this involved employee adoption and sign up. We built the MVP and found a company willing to be our BETA test site. 

After weeks of testing, these are the four pitfalls we see:
  1. Human resources is a bad place to experiment. HR by its very nature is conservative. You really don’t want to mess with people! If you are going to do an MVP in the HR space, you can’t disrupt the work place and you can’t give the employees a bad experience.
  2. Workplace versus home environment. People don’t mind “playing around” with a concept at home. Most people love to experiment with a new website or software tool or tinker around with a new app on their phone. They don’t like to do this at work. 
  3. Limited test period. Many of the examples in the Lean Start Up talk about getting feedback from early MVP experiences and tweaking the product to see what happens. You can’t just tweak away in HR. Employees won’t tolerate it and the HR department can’t allow it.
  4. Greater need to know. At home, you are comfortable going down the rabbit hole. Not so at work. If you really don’t understand what the application does or exactly how things work, you tend to freeze up. This means that you have to give employees a lot more training with an MVP in HR than you might need to do with a typical consumer based product. 

I am a huge fan of The Lean Start Up and think it has its place in building Human Resources products and solutions. But anyone opting to follow this process should be careful about how far you take the process of experimenting in HR.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to run off and explain to our BETA customer why that button in the upper left hand corner of the screen really wasn't supposed to offer a job to the employee’s dog.  (Although I stand by the fact that the dog’s social media profile looked like a perfect fit). 

(image courtesy of Gerd Altman on Pixaby)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

All the Edges Are Gone

It has snowed for three days straight. The world outside my window is softly contoured mounds of white. I think if you could live on a big billowy cloud it would look just like this. The bushes, the steps, that piece of furniture my neighbor never put away for the winter. They are all gone. There are no edges, just a harmony of continuous white.

First off, this is not normal for the low-lands of Colorado in the second half of April. Sure, we can get a big one-day dump of snow every few years (I remember 30 inches of the stuff in March several years back), but for it to keep coming down for 3 solid days; that’s kinda new.  

When snow comes down like this it takes away all the edges. The world has no jagged places. When snow comes down all at once it covers things up, but you still know what lies beneath. When it keeps coming for 3 solid days the snow re-shapes the landscape.

Looking at all this snow got me wondering what it would be like if we could (metaphorically) apply a healthy dose of snow to a company.  Would that smooth out their edges, would it make the jagged, rough spots go away. Would getting rid of the jagged, rough spots be a good thing? Probably not.

But there are days like this, while sitting in my office and looking out the window at all that peaceful  snow-covered landscape, that I really do wish that about 6 feet of the white stuff would fall on that guy three doors down.

Just saying…

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon: HR Heroes

In thousands of companies across the United States, and especially in Boston, the first phone call that company CEOs and Presidents made after hearing about the bombings at the Boston Marathon was to their head of Human Resources.

I recall an event about 20 years ago when I was a General Manager for a company in Colorado. I came into the office around 7:00 AM and as I started to settle into my routine I received a call saying that one of my employees had just shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself: Both dead.

I called HR.

As HR Directors do the world over, she rushed into the office and took over the task of finding out more details, making sure our employees knew what was going on, and taking time to talk to the friends and co-workers who knew this individual the best. I don’t think the HR Director was trained in psychology, or disaster response, or managing human emotions in the face of unbelievable circumstances. But you couldn't have proven that to me or to any of the people she (and the others in her small department) helped that day. They seemed to know exactly the right things to do.

The HR department is the emergency response group that spearheads how companies will help their employees respond to tragedies.  They do this without fanfare and without questioning whether it is in their job description. They know helping people cope is a key part of helping keep the company performing.  But it goes beyond that. The little appreciated fact about most HR professionals is that they care about how people are doing. They want to help. Period.

That is just what HR does. They help. They try and make whatever life sends our way a little more tolerable.

In the aftermath of Boston the day was met with a lot of silent HR heroes. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I'm Melting: The Woes and Worries of an HR Entrepreneur

My new product goes into Beta Test next week (or for those of you initiated into the ways of Lean Start Up: The Minimum Viable Product). After all the work we've done thinking and re- thinking, testing, designing and finally building the MVP you would think I am excited.

I am scared out of my socks.

I stopped sleeping about a month ago. Now I wake up and think about the product. Usually at 2:06 A.M. I question every level of my sanity: What in the world was I thinking. By morning I am less pessimistic, but still rather saturnine. It takes a few hours to pull the manic back out from the deep recesses of my depressive.

There are days I feel like the Wicked Witch in a room full of Dorothys:

I'm melting......

My wife did not sign up for this. She thought she was doing me a favor when she agreed to let me spend all of our “rainy-day-fund” to start a new business from scratch. Now she is searching for a therapist (I am not sure if that is for me or her).  I am quitting when she starts to Google divorce lawyers!

But man I’m having a lot of fun.

It is hard work, and very risky to embark on building a new tool for HR. But HR is an exciting space with so many things going on. Being in the middle of that is what keeps me going. This product may not work – at least not at first. But if the money doesn't run out and I delete all search criteria for divorce lawyers: I’m there.

Now back to worrying so much that my headaches, my back hurts, my stomach feels sketchy, and my neck has a serious kink: The true badges of the entrepreneur!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finding work at 60: Is HR Failing a Generation?

Upper middle-management and out of a job.

Too qualified,

Too set in your ways

Not right for the job

Too old fashion for our hip new company

And too many other things you aren't allowed to say.

How many really talented people are out there looking (and looking) for work who can’t find a job because the 30 (or 40) something that is in charge of hiring has a pre-conceived notion that the person they are looking for is “younger.” How many automated resume screening tools see someone who was highly successful for 30 years as not qualified for the new product manager position that just opened up? 

I am closing in on that generation. I know a lot of people who are there (guess when you've been around a long time, a lot of the people you know seem to have aged on you). My brother is 59 and just got laid off from a career of 25 years as a successful disc jockey. Seems they don’t need disc jockeys much anymore and really don’t need old ones. He’s applied to sell cars, drive trucks, work at most anything that a 20-something might apply for. Nothing, Nada, No reply.

I just got off the phone this morning with an old (sorry for the use of that word) friend of mine who was a very successful business man. Built a company from scratch and made himself and a lot of other people a lot of money when he sold it. He doesn’t need a lot of money now, but he wants the stimulation of work. For 4 years now: Nothing, Nada, No reply.

Seems to me that we have a lot of talent out there that current hiring (and recruiting) processes don’t know how to deal with. The Great Recession put a lot of talent on the street, but the great boom in new business processes leaves them out of the picture.

That’s a shame: A generation lost.