HR – Find Your Oops

Paul Hebert Good HR, HR, Innovation, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert, Seat at the Table, The HR Profession, Trench HR


Something you don’t want to hear from your surgeon when under local anesthetic.  Something most of us never want to have to say at a staff meeting.

Oops. It means something went wrong and it was probably your fault.  Never, never fun to say oops.

Oops Deux Fois

I had an oops moment once (yeah… just once.)

I was on one of my first jobs out of college, maybe 24 years old, on the job for about 8 months.  I was writing copy for incentive program updates for a group travel award for top selling car sales people going to Vienna.  One of the activities on their upcoming trip was a wine tasting evening featuring fabulous Austrian wines. Unfortunately, the copy I wrote had them tasting wines from… wait for it… Australia. Yeah – wrong country (although spelled correctly.)

Needless to say the client was upset and we (the company and me the writer) had to send out an updated piece (this was years ago so it was a printed 4-color mailing – not cheap.)  So I cleverly wrote a cover letter for the new mailing accepting the blame.  My cover note said…

Opps… we made a mistake on your last mailing.

While many of you may enjoy Australian wine – you will actually be sampling the best wines Austria has to offer. We apologize for the typo and have enclosed a corrected mailing.

Yeah… you read that right… I had a typo in the letter apologizing for my previous typo. For the record – they didn’t ask me to write another apology letter.

I have never spelled oops wrong again. Never.

I also learned a lot about moving too fast and not proofing your work One. More. Time.

I was a better copywriter from that day forward.

Mistakes Happen

It has been said by me, and quite a few others, that HR is composed of a pretty risk-averse group of folks.  And I get it.  It can be real issue if you make a decision affecting all the employees and you’re wrong.  That’s an order of magnitude more problematic than a simple typo on a marketing mailing.

HR cannot afford those kinds of mistakes.

But learning is mistake-riddled.  Most of our learning actually comes from making mistakes.  Without mistakes we never know the boundaries of our decisions.  How can you and HR learn, grow, get better, if you can’t afford a mistake?

Make Your Mistake Smaller

If you accept that most disruptive change and many great ideas come from taking risks and managing mistakes then you have to find a way to allow yourself to take those risks and make those mistakes – or accept a professional life of “same old same old.”

You need to do “experiments.” HR needs to find a laboratory where you can test new ideas, new concepts, new ways of helping your organization break through to new levels of performance.  You know you can’t do it with the entire population.

So… just like our own scientists… you need an R&D lab.

Here are some ideas on how to create our own little shop of horrors inside your own organization:

  1. Identify positive deviants.  There are managers in your company willing to take risks and try new ideas to increase their team’s effectiveness and engagement.  Find them.
  2. Enlist positive deviants onto your team. Create a few test kitchens with these forward thinking managers.  Talk to them regularly. Include them as a sounding board for new ideas.  Run ideas past them.  Soon enough they will be on your team and will start to want to try some of your ideas.
  3. Run experiments. Once your deviants are lined up then you can suggest small experiments and test your hypotheses.  You don’t have to engage an entire organization to test whether performance discussions every 14 days give better results than annual reviews.  You only need a few successes in small tests to get the rest of the world to take notice.

I know – sounds easy and hard at the same time.

I know – someone will say you can’t do it because you’re singling out a small group and that’s not fair.  Tough.  Each manager in your company does things differently so you’re already starting with an unfair set up.  If you think about it… you’re actually experimenting to find out what really works and then spread that practice around so ultimately – you’re actually reducing variation and increasing performance. (At least that’s how I’d sell it.)

What’s Your Oops?

If you don’t have an “oops” you’re missing out.  You need an “oops.”  You have to have an “oops.”  It’s how you know you’re pushing the envelope and making a difference.  Find a way to do “oops” without bringing down the house.

This quote by Somerset Maugham is one all HR should post on their wall, cube, screen saver…

Only a mediocre person is always at his best. 
                                                                                    William Somerset Maugham

Think about it.  No go play with your positive deviants and find an oops to do today!