· Features

HR needs to challenge the rules

People do not question why things are the way they are. The standard assumption is 'rules exist' for a reason'

Now that I head McDonald’s people function at a global level, it was agreed that I should be based out of our corporate HQ in Chicago. In November my family and I began our transatlantic relocation, and my on-boarding got underway.

Some of the so-called ‘rules’ and ways of working in America strike me as quirky – if not downright bizarre.

For example, as I don’t yet have a credit rating the banks would only let me open an account with a fixed daily spending allowance. That would probably have helped when I was a student eking out my grant, but for a forty-something executive – really?

Stranger still is that, as far as I can ascertain, there is no statutory requirement for these ‘rules’ to be in place – they’re just ‘the way things are done around here’. Which, by coincidence, was a key theme of a November TEDx talk given by Lisa Bodell, CEO of innovation firm Futurethink.

Bodell believes that one of the biggest barriers to change and innovation in organisations is that people do not question why things are the way they are. The standard assumption is that rules must be there for a reason.

So when Bodell is working with organisations looking to drive innovation, she sets the leaders and managers a simple challenge: ‘If you could kill two rules that hold you back from better innovating – what would they be and why?’

What they come up with, she has found, “aren’t always rules. They’re policies, reports, meetings and emails, cultural assumptions... things where the boss says ‘who told you that was a rule?’

And when you think about it, the answer to that goes right back to the on-boarding process – the point where organisations make very clear to new hires ‘the way things are done around here’.

Recently the Harvard Business Review published a paper by LBS professor Dan Cable and his associates summarising the work they’ve been doing on the way organisations on-board new employees. And it’s dynamite.

In one example, Cable’s team worked with a contact centre and changed the first hour of the existing on-boarding programme to create three versions.

In version one, the ‘individual-identity condition’, the first hour focused on the individual’s strengths and how they could bring those to the job.

In version two of the on-boarding process, the ‘organisational-identity condition’, the first hour shared the organisation’s norms and values, and sought to build pride in working for the business.

Version three, the control group, was the organisation’s existing programme.

The impact was startling. Version one resulted in a 33% reduction in turnover and a significant increase in customer satisfaction when compared to versions two and three.

These results were replicated in other settings, with the HBR paper concluding that “By making authenticity a core value from the start of employment, organisations may not only inspire greater commitment and effort but also strategically allow for the type of ‘positive deviance’ that keeps them fresh and agile”. That could be positive deviance such as challenging stupid rules.

I think that if organisations were to adopt a practice of challenging the so-called rules holding them back, the resulting transformation would be visible to employees, customers and stakeholders alike.

David Fairhurst is executive vice president, chief people officer at McDonald's