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Human Resources talks exclusively with William Treseder, VP of customer success at innovation firm BMNT, on how rapid learning and internal accelerators can boost the team, the company and even HR function. Robert Blain reports

Can you elaborate a little on the internal accelerator concept?

The question for HR is: How can I bring some of the goodness I see with technology companies, bearing in mind that they work very fast? How can I get my workforce to operate at their speed – start-up speed? Is there a way to modify this external accelerator and modify it internally?

That’s the genesis of the ‘internal accelerator’ concept.     

How can HR apply rapid learning in their own team?

It can work well in two different ways. The first way is focusing on the internals of your organisation. And the other way is to focus on building cross-functional teams. So HR might want to work with operations, the supply chain, on an important project that cuts across different traditional silos. This entails the HR leader working with the leader of another part of the organisation to work out: what is the project where we’re struggling to make progress?

For example, we know that the Covid pandemic is ending and I am really worried about how my team is going to reassert itself into the organisation. HR needs to figure out what that looks like. Pulling out individual pieces, do we bring people back to the office or is their project one where they don’t need to come back.

These are really difficult issues and the default is just to throw a bunch of people into meetings – and it takes forever to sort these things out.

But the role of an accelerator – of rapid learning – is to put together a small team working fast and smart on an important new project. That’s basically what an accelerator is. You can use different technologies and different tools, but that’s the piece of it that’s really important.

"The role of an accelerator – of rapid learning – is to put together a small team working fast and smart. You can use different technologies and different tools, but that’s the piece that’s really important."

Why does it work?
The reason that this works is that the team has permission, has buy-in from the leadership to try a different approach. So the leadership sets boundaries ahead of time – whether that’s HR only or also partners across the organisation.

And the advice is, ‘This is what we’re trying to accomplish. I don’t expect it to be perfect but I expect you to learn quickly and keep us apprised of the situation.’ That’s what seems to work best.

The surprising benefit of an internal accelerator is that, say you’re doing a 10-week accelerator, the single most valuable thing in it is that there is a weekly status update to the middle manager from the team.

And the beauty of this is that these updates keep everyone aligned without the need for additional meetings. It helps both the leadership and the team stay synchronised and something that will be successful at the end – but we don’t want to predetermine what that is. We’re here to learn.

So a reduction in meetings is a by-product. What we are really doing is intentional scheduling. Covid has meant that we spent the past 15 months asking: What am I really doing? As long as I’m in the office I’m working but with Covid, you will get leaders who have embraced the idea that I need to be more clear with my team. Leaders who adopt these new ways of thinking, will dramatically outperform other teams.

 "HR was the place that felt the pain because the onboarding was connected to HR. But ultimately, the solution did not fully reside with HR."

Can you share a real-world case where this helped a company fix its onboarding problem?

There’s a good example of a company of 25,000, a distributed workforce that were struggling with an onboarding problem. This had to do with how long it took to issue computers to new employees. It was taking up to 60-70 days to get the ID card and the hardware.

It turned out that HR used a different backend system to the IT department. HR had one programme and IT had four different programmes and the data had to move across the different systems. So you’ve got five different programme managers that all need to play nice together. It became very clear, very quickly, that this had to be addressed, to address issues like data cleanliness.

But the fact that the team was given permission to go in and – rather than be under pressure to fix it immediately – look at how to solve this. So within a few weeks, they worked with the different areas, did the interviews and were able to come up with a solution – which was ultimately funded and implemented.

In this scenario, HR was the place that felt the pain because the onboarding was connected to HR. But ultimately, the solution did not fully reside in HR. The HR leaders knew that they had to get buy-in from these IT groups, such as the chief information officer and their team to find a solution.

HR leaders are typically going to encounter multiple issues like this. You have a problem but you can’t fully implement the solution. The default in such situations is to put my team in a room with this team and have a big meeting. And if they don’t solve it in the first meeting, we’ll have more meetings – meetings, meetings, meetings! Ultimately that doesn’t work. There’s just a lot of finger pointing.

What’s the trick to providing an environment for employees where it’s safe to experiment?

You need buy-in and boundaries. The appropriate level of leadership needs to be bought in. And what that really means is that I’m to withhold my judgement on what this really is until the end of the process. I’m not going to evaluate it at the beginning. I’m going to wait until the end – and keep the focus on learning.

In concrete terms what that means is that we will have the senior leaders join in at the kick-off. So they come in and say, ‘Look. I want you to do this.’ And sometimes even then the participants don’t believe it. You have to get people to believe that it’s OK (to experiment).

So you need to get buy-in from the leadership and constrain things in terms of boundaries. Think in terms of swim lanes. This is where we are doing this work. Not over there but here. So there’s an appropriate level of scoping goes on in terms of the mandate of this team. And that’s really helpful because they team are not just doing ‘whatever’ but are being very targeted, very focused.

Psychologically, teams don’t like being given a mandate for change without scope. They need at least one of those things to be fixed. Otherwise the team will feel anxiety because they are not channeled appropriately.    

There’s a sense that as the pandemic recedes many companies will return to the ‘normal’ way of working. What changes from the pandemic will/should we keep?

Intentional scheduling. People need to be a lot clearer about blocking time in their schedule. There are  four different types of work: Deep/creative work, admin, co-ordination with the team and group actions. The ratios vary but most have work that fits into those four buckets.

So I need to determine if I need to go into the office today if all I’m doing is individual work. I need to ask myself, ‘Where do I need to be to do this? 

What do you read?

I have come to appreciate the barbell approach. A barbell is thin in the middle and fat on the ends. The idea is to save time for really old books – hundreds of years old, thousands of years old. And then I also read stuff that’s really topical and staying away from all the middle stuff. So it’s the classics at one end and the really fresh at the other, such as technology and how its changing the world and topics like neuroscience, academic papers, blogs.

But if you want to know about say political science, read the I Ching or The Art of War. Or more generally, the Bible, Plato’s, The Republic, or Shakespeare sonnets. Don’t read a book that’s 50 years old – go super, super old. Because for hundreds of years people found those books so valuable that they share them with each other. You know it’s great and that it’s really powerful.