HR Needs to Shave with Occam’s Razor

Paul Hebert Employee Communications, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR, HR, HR Technology, Paul Hebert 8 Comments

Time for a quiz, my fellow HR aficionados!

Look at the three numbers below.

7… 84… 3,321

Your job is to find a rule based on those three numbers that will allow you to predict the next number in the series. Ready – GO!

I’ll give you the answer at the end, but take some time… jot down your theory. Don’t jump ahead and read the answer – it will ruin the fun and all of us at FOT will know if you cheated and we’ll social media shame you. See, we have a tracking pixel on this page that tells us who reads the post and if they jumped from the top to the bottom within the first 20 seconds of this post loading in your browser. Don’t be that guy or that girl. Srsly.

But here’s my premise: HR makes employee engagement complex and difficult on purpose when a simpler explanation is probably the right answer.

Why do I think that?

Glad you asked.

It Ain’t Worth It Unless It’s Hard

Why do people think brewing coffee with 20 steps, precise water temperature and atomic-clock level steeping time makes a better cup of coffee than simply plugging in the Mr. Coffee?

Why are “big data”, artificial intelligence and systems thinking pushing their big, complicated noses into the HR tent? Because it feeds our need for complexity. Humans LOVE complexity. There is actually a decision bias attached to it called, not-complex at all, complexity bias.

We assume someone using big, obscure words knows what they are talking about. We think complex math is better than really smart deductions and insights based on our innate ability to recognize patterns. Complexity makes things seem important and special. Think about the coffee example. Can a Mr. Coffee brew a good cup of coffee? Does the 20-step process really create a beverage that much better? In other words, is the juice worth the squeeze? And what about all the corporate bureaucracy designed to increase the relative importance of the activity (or the department requiring it?) Complexity elevates the position of an issue in our primitive human brains.

Simple ideas are relegated to “newbies” while higher paid minds wrestle with the complex issues.

Yet are they really complex – or are we making them complex because we want them to be?

We feel better when we accomplish something complex – even if it doesn’t need to be. And like our executives in their mahogany cube-farms, their complex problems allow them to create their own little tribe. A tribe of insiders – consultants – gurus – ninjas.

If things aren’t complex we wouldn’t need all the support, would we?

Time To Bring It Back To Simpler Times

Two things cross my mind as I think about all the complexity in our business world.

One – the quote attributed to Einstein (you all knew I’d get here right?)…

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

And Two –  Occam’s Razor – a scientific principle that states for of any given set of explanations for an event occurring, it is most likely that the simplest one is the correct one.

I’m not suggesting our problems in HR with engagement aren’t complex. They are. After all, we’re dealing with human beings – nothing more complex than that. But just because the object of our focus is complex doesn’t mean our solution needs to be complex as well. In fact, I’d say that in many cases, the more complex our problem, the simpler our thinking should be. After all, if we are going have impact with our employees we have to find the thing that applies in most cases – not in each case. I do believe engagement is local and personal – that’s the “what” part of the engagement equation (or the “why”). But “how” you get there is pretty standard.

In HR we need to simplify our solution sets. Get it down to one thing.

Every research project I read, every blog post from the HR-Intelligencia, ultimately boil down to exactly the same thing.

If you talk to people more often, you will have greater engagement.

I almost double-dog dare you to pull out any post on HR and engagement, and at the core of it is a finding that can be fixed, mitigated or helped by simply having more in-real-life conversations.

Let’s not get wrapped up in the all the data points we CAN have or even do have. Let’s not run fantastical and mysterious statistical analysis and pay consultants in bitcoin just to find out we need to talk to our employees more.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

  • Recognition drives engagement – so does saying thank you in person. Calling people to tell them how you value them in the organization.
  • Find their “why” drives engagement – so does asking people what they are passionate about and finding a way to connect that to their day to day work.
  • Having a voice in the direction and success of the organization drives engagement – so does asking and acting on the thoughts and feelings of your employees.

It really isn’t any more complex than that, is it?

Here’s the problem IMO… if we make it simple, then it isn’t easy to hide. Managers will be exposed. Entire segments of HR consulting will disappear tomorrow.

So here’s the Occam’s Razor for HR and engagement.

Talk to people one on one.

Listen more than you talk.


Simple is hard. But worth it.



Oh yea… the answer to initial problem at the start of the post…

Find a rule from those three numbers that will allow you to predict the next number in this series: 7… 84… 3,321

The answer: The next number in the series can be any number larger than one before it.

That’s it. Nothing too complicated. Just a larger number.

3,322 would be right.

3,324 would be right.

So would 1,032,293,319.

Simple, no?

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.

Comments 8

  1. Paul,

    I agree with the whole of your article. The organization I work for use an employee engagement survey and has done so for 5 years. It was not until this most recent survey that we assisted our managers in simplifying the discussion with their teams that we have had huge buy in into engagement. I have had more discussion this year than ever before. I really enjoyed your article.


  2. You are the BEST! I am liking your stuff more and more! You have hit the root of what is perhaps the greatest problem in Human Resources. Most things have a rather simple solution, that includes those segments that HR controls such as recruiting, performance, compensation, benefits. Yet HR practitioners want to make everything as complicated as possible. I feel to many HR people want to make sure that the rest of the world values their contributions and realizes just how incredibly complex and difficult their jobs are. Meanwhile most of the employees are confused by jumping through the hoops of the complex benefit, compensation, leave, policy, recruiting, recordkeeping systems designed by the Human Resources dept. Just listen to HR people talk about how much time the spend in the office and how much work they take home and how there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and how much superior knowledge is required in their function.

  3. The new rules for performance management are more conversations focused on what is working now and how To be even more effective going forward. The move away from annual reviews focused on the past 52 weeks has tech entrepreneurs and online performance review companies claiming that their app can be used for performance management now. I don’t think so. Paul, you are spot on, and I believe most people in HR are aware that more eyeball to eyeball (or phone, Skype, FaceTime for remote work relationships) conversations are the simple and obvious answer. Agree that we need to scale back on the over-engineered processes created by well meaning people sitting in a conference room.

  4. Yes, and on top of this is a continual redesign of processes that were created by well meaning people, but in practice don’t help propel the organization forward. Instead of being seen as strategic and in touch HR can be experienced as the creators of busy work. How often is the performance review, the ratings, and competencies updated? Every few years with the hope that the latest version will work better than the last. People get burnt out with too much complexity and change.

  5. Pingback: Posting Everywhere but Here – What is Paul Thinking?

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