Link to Heuristic Podcast – #14 – No One Right Way with Amy Rawls.
Alicia Parr: Hi, this is Alicia with Performentor and this is another Heuristic Podcast. And today we’re going to talk to Amy Rawls. Amy is an executive HR consultant with Performentor, she’s on the team. And she also has her own consulting firm. It is called ASR Business Partnering, LLC. Now Amy and I have been working together on and off for many many years. I hold her in very high esteem. She’s very very smart. She won’t tell you that. And has lots of amazing and interesting ideas. So that’s why we’re talking today. Amy, anything you’d like to add?
Amy Rawls: No, it’s just been such an honor to continue to work with you. And I feel like we have had such incredible opportunities to learn and grow together and just appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.
Alicia Parr: Cool, awesome. Well, the heuristic that we’re going to talk about today is sometimes there’s one right way, probably not this time. And this is sort of like an iteration on where there are some people that are always about the best practice. And sometimes there are best practices. But sometimes complete focus on best practices means that we don’t come up with new practices that might be better, or might be better for this situation. So to me, that’s a reminder that every situation is a little different, and there’s not one right way to do everything. So that’s where that came from. I was just curious what your initial reaction is to that heuristic.
Amy Rawls: Yeah, my reaction is, it’s my favorite one. I think it really describes the importance of remaining flexible, open to new information and recognizing that, like you say, there’s very few circumstances where there’s only one potential direction to move in, and one solution that fits every single time. So I think, as consultants and as professionals, just being able to remain curious about better ways of doing things or alternative ways of doing things, even if we do go back to that best practice, exploring the other possibilities helps us to arrive at what will work best, given these current conditions and the constraints we’re facing in the moment, which will change over time.
Alicia Parr: Yeah, maybe we could reflect back on when we worked together previously, sort of on the corporate side. And I would say that knowing what I knew then that was a great opportunity, because I was coming in and I was working with a team of very very smart people. But I was really the only person with any human resources background or not at all. So I thought, well, what a great opportunity to try and experiment with things that I probably couldn’t get away with doing in more established organizations before established HR functions. What is your take? And what was your read on that? And how, when you’re in the HR leadership role, what sorts of ways that you apply this heuristic?
Amy Rawls: Yeah. So I think most tangibly my philosophy about creating policy and rules came out of this line of thinking, which is, that policies and rules can provide great guidance. And they can also really box you into this kind of thinking, which is, there’s only one way to do this. And so one of the things that I took away from my corporate experience in HR leadership was that there are times when policies are required, but a lot of times we can apply really solid judgment and take things more case by case and allow us to apply our creativity and our problem-solving skills without being boxed in. And so it’s actually one of the things that when I really sat down to think about where can I add the most value, and where do I get my tank filled as well, it’s really working within organizations that are smaller and a little more flexible in that area. So that we can really think about, what is best in this specific situation. And so that’s one kind of example of how I applied the thinking not only in the organization I was in but in the context of my own career.
Alicia Parr: So in terms of like policies, being mindful that not just one way of having there’s not one right policy for any particular thing.
I see performance feedback being an arena where this heuristic really comes up, because I’ve seen it done so many different ways, including the very informal way. Some people say, there is no process, but I guarantee there’s a process everywhere. But it just may not be very consistent nor documented. What kinds of different ways have you experimented with performance feedback?
Amy Rawls: Yeah, so I think, to your point, everything we do as leaders is providing feedback, right? So even not actively providing feedback is a way of communicating something. So we go from the very passive to the very formal and structured. I think that the way this applies in the context of performance feedback is really being aware of how true it is that everyone is an individual and we’re all humans. And that if you aren’t in charge of a team, for example, you’re the leader of a team that being mindful, and asking questions about how people like to receive feedback, whether it’s positive or constructive.
Being aware that what works for one person on your team may not work for every person on your team. And while we do want to have some consistency, we also want to make room for what’s going to work. Because at the end of the day, what we want to do is provide feedback in a format that allows the person to understand how their performance is being perceived by manager and others. And also give them the tools to evaluate their performance in real time on their own. So getting that right for each person is the most important thing.
The format is maybe a little less important in my perspective. But also just reminding leaders, just if you don’t know the answer to that question for anyone on your team, like how do they need their feedback: ask them, they’ll tell you. And then you’ll be able to deliver exactly what they need. So that’s a really great example of, there’s no one right way to deliver performance feedback, because you’re ultimately working with human beings that will have different preferences.
Alicia Parr: That’s actually a very, almost controversial approach, because mostly you talk to HR people, and especially performance feedback, it’s all about consistency, consistency, consistency. And what I learned is that consistency is important for some things. But consistency to your point, when it comes to what is the right way to deliver feedback, and share feedback with this individual is not the same in terms of is this person getting what they need in order to be successful. But so consistency actually can cause problems for that purpose. So there’s like, there’s two different purposes. Like we need some consistency across the system, so that we can make reasonable comparisons, and see trends in terms of how the team’s doing, and know how to distribute compensation changes etc. But in the nuts and bolts, and in the actual conversations, consistency doesn’t necessarily, that’s not necessarily a good way to go. I don’t think.
Amy Rawls: And yeah, and I think one approach that can be holding consistent, like the bare minimal requirements of your feedback system, so it has to happen at least quarterly, it has to be documented this way. Occasionally, you’re going to have to make some ratings, right? And that can be consistent. And like you said, what you have control over is the conversation you have, the narrative, the exact format or additional things you’re doing to communicate to each team member in a way that resonates for them.
Alicia Parr: Yeah, I remember, at some point, I don’t know if it’s still in practice, probably isn’t, that I think we did create a form, but it was like bare minimum. Then we had all these talking points and guidelines about all the different ways that they could highlight, or I think it was like, we would say you can do any, all or none or some, if I remember correctly.
Amy Rawls: I agree. And again, it was about having the structure to allow consistency with room to apply judgment or personalization, so that again, each team member is receiving information in a way they process well. And that helps them understand where they sit today with their performance, where they want to go, and how to get there.
Alicia Parr: Yeah, so I guess there’s this whole idea that if there’s one right way, if you’re dealing with humans, they are all different. Maybe that’s where that kind of starts to fall apart.
Amy Rawls: And yeah, as a scientist, I can tell you there are certainly things in the world there is one way or right way to do things right. You don’t start free forming it in the middle of a scientific protocol. You follow it step by step by step, and you don’t say oh, it says 30 grams, but I’m going to see what happens if I put 37 grams, like you don’t do that. But that’s because you’re not dealing with human beings usually. And so I think, yeah, they’re when dealing with the world we’re in with the people side of the business, your heuristic is exactly true. It’s just, yeah, maybe there is one right way to do something, but it’s probably fine. And that’s why I love it. It’s just a frame.
Alicia Parr: Like, yeah, there’s I can imagine these lab workers like Jazz musician, kind of like free forming it. We’re going to measure it this way this time. We’re going to like, kind of like, how my husband cooks, kind of like, yeah, so that came out really, really good. Can you replicate it? No.
Amy Rawls: Having said that some of our most important scientific discoveries came from someone making an error. Right? Or their experiment didn’t work. I mean, that is how science often does work. So maybe there’s some application for it. It’s just not be expected or predictable outcome.
Alicia Parr: If there is one right way then why would an error be helpful?
Amy Rawls: Another session.
Alicia Parr: That’s kind of interesting. Yeah. Or we’re going to measure things differently now. What counts is this reason like readings. Right? What are some other, can you think of any other examples of how this one right way, probably not this time, has come up maybe more recently? For you?
Amy Rawls: Woo. Put me on the spot! Yeah, I got one.
I think it can often be true in terms of like titles and organizational structure. So when you zoom out, a lot of times I’ve seen kind of resistance to a title, where it’s, oh, that doesn’t exist so commonly in the world, but yet, it’s descriptive. It’s exactly what we’re talking about. And there can be some kind of tension between it’s not very common, it’s not seen all the time, but it feels right on.
So that’s one example where I’ve had really healthy debate with business leaders about, you know, well, what’s the most important priority that is recognizable when the person goes external facing out in the world in your industry, or that it’s super descriptive what they do, because you know, we might arrive at a different final outcome depending on what the top priority is. So a lot of times when there are multiple options, I’ve found, just stepping back and saying, what’s the most important thing we need to accomplish, is a good way to drive you to kind of like, what’s the right answer in the moment?
And again, that condition can change over time. So being open not only to what is the right option today, but knowing that you may revisit it later. And that’s okay. So that’s not a really complex example. But certainly, one I’ve been in multiple times recently that I can relate this principle to of just, how do we decide between competing options, when there’s not one right way, is stepping back and look at your priorities and what are you actually trying to accomplish. And if there are multiple of those things, what’s the most important one.
Alicia Parr: Yeah, and just, socialize it, get feedback on it, hear from the people skin in the game, look at another heuristic, or as you just describe that I was thinking of a conversation I had. One other team members this morning about playing around with the job title on a job posting. So, she was like, I don’t know, the client is getting a little worried. And she was like, no, no, no, we’re not saying that they would use this title internally, but we want to see what happens in terms of attracting people that we might not have caught their eye before. We can still use whatever title we want to use internally. And I think one nice thing about this, sometimes there’s one right way.
It’s hard to do this with policies and certain things, but it encourages experimentation. Like, let’s try it and see what happens. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Or if it does work, we’re like, wow, we’ve discovered something that worked here that we wouldn’t have guessed. So like and I’ve heard the same kind of thing before in recruiting. There’s just a lot of experimentation that needs to happen. AB testing to use kind of the marketing terminology.
Amy Rawls: Especially when you’re not getting the expected outcome from a specific approach, being willing to try another one and revisit over time. That’s really a main driver of scaling businesses that are successful in their groups. I think it’s just a commitment to try and try again.
Alicia Parr: Yeah. Another thing that I was rattling around in my head when I wrote this heuristic is that our human brains, once we’ve locked on to an explanation for something or a right way to do something, we’ve locked in. We locked in, and we’re not as open to revisiting our assumptions about that. Just maybe it worked just adequately in the past, and that stick with the devil you know, versus the one, the scary unknown that you don’t. And so I just like this as a reminder that if you think there’s one right way, you’re probably wrong, which is not comfortable.
Amy Rawls: Right. Yeah. We don’t like ambiguity. We’re not wired for ambiguity. So like you said, once you’ve kind of eliminated some ambiguity, the last thing you want to do in your human nature, is to go back and introduce ambiguity again, but sometimes it is the right thing to do.
Alicia Parr: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.
Yeah, this kind of links a little bit to another interview podcast that we were talking about, a completely different heuristic that person was talking about, rather than focusing on the things that you know, and the situation, actually taking the time to list out the things that you don’t know. And for things that you think you know, actually writing down what your, I guess, level of confidence is. That’s true, right?
There’s a big difference between I know this to be true, but I’m really only 65% confident that it is true, in this case, versus I am 100%. So I think that interacts nicely with this one. And then there’s this practice of like, well, what is it that we don’t know about the situation? What assumptions are we making that might end up being false and that’s hard to do? All right.
When have you seen it go wrong to use a best practice, because it’s the best practice?
Amy Rawls: Yeah. Well, I think I don’t want to like shine a light too specifically on this particular example. But I think the example I’m thinking of is when sticking to something just because we’ve always done it that way, just does two things. First, it kills innovation. Maybe not even the most grand version of innovation. It might just be someone saw an inefficiency and knew how to fix it, but bottled that up, right?
So that leads to the second part, which is, it is demoralizing to the team, if they’re working within the context of there’s only one right way to do something, we figured it all out. Just like kind of take your marching orders and go. Because we all have ideas that we’d love to share. And sometimes having that mentality of ‘this is the way we do it’ can create, at a minimum, a lack of creativity and innovation and maximum fear for bringing new ideas forward. And especially in that latter case, people will not stick around.
So I think that’s kind of what comes to mind for me is if you get too locked into one specific way of doing something, it has bigger consequences than just doing it that way. There is a team.
Alicia Parr: Yeah, I know that. I’ll share an example and then we can orient to wrapping up. But I’ve gotten feedback through the years, I guess no one would give that to me these days. But in the past, I’ve gotten feedback that, I was resistant to changing things. And I think what I remember that being was sometimes you take a practice, and maybe at first it was very innovative, it was definitely out of the box. And then it’s not just the thing that’s separate, it’s all interacted within, like a dozen other things that are also kind of interwoven into it. And what looks like a small change that you could experiment with is in reality something that require a very, very heavy lift to actually change. And so that can be something that’s a little bit anxiety-producing. Or you wonder it is like, I have an unknown benefit from making a change. So I think the key is like, are there ways or can we build our systems so that it is easier to experiment without feeling like we’re taking the whole ship apart just to see if we can replace the steering wheel? That’s a terrible idea.
Anything else that you would like to share or hoped to get across before we wrap up?
Amy Rawls: I’ll just reiterate that I think the way to put this in practice routinely and almost without effort is to remain open and curious and listen to what you are presented with like as much of an open mind as possible, and then you’ll realize it. In almost every scenario, there are multiple alternatives to consider, and so just being willing to do that at every opportunity will get you where you need to go.
Alicia Parr: Keeping an open mind. Well, wonderful. Well, Amy, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.
Amy Rawls: Thank you. Yeah.
Alicia Parr: All right. Thanks.