I was seated in the HR strategy session of a large multi-national financial services company. All it’s smartest people where there. In the front of the room was a gigantic white-board (biggest I’d ever seen) and drawn onto the board were some very sophisticated processes, concepts and systems, that would ensure the people of said company would be healthy, engaged, passionate and all the other awesome things HR people are expected to deliver.

They were very proud of their creation. They had created a masterpiece of HR complexity and fanciness. All I saw was the birth of a monster, that would require legions of people to execute and manage.

scribble monster

At some point, I was asked for my opinion. I stood up and suggested that perhaps 70% of their drawing could be removed and replaced by something I had read about in one of Ricardo Semler’s books. He called it something like ‘Coffee Cup Management’, and it goes something like this:

If you’re the manager of a team of people, set a goal to do the following 2 or 3 times each week…

  1. Pick an individual. Approach said individual and ask them if they’d like some coffee?
  2. They will possibly fall off of their chair because you’re offering, but once they’d scooped themselves up off the floor and the colour had returned to their face, there’d be a good chance they’d say ‘yes’.
  3. Go and make them, and you, a cup of coffee (see – How to make the perfect cup of instant coffee)
  4. When you return, sit down and drink the coffee with them
  5. It takes about 9 minutes to drink a cup of coffee. While you’re drinking, ask them how they are, what they’re working on, how their family is, what they’re reading, have they seen a good movie recently, what’s exciting in the office for them, what’s stealing energy in the office from them? You know, informal yet interesting questions.
  6. You do that 2 or 3 times a week, and in one month nothing will have happened. But keep it up for 6 months and I guarantee that you’ll have made an incredible shift in how you connect with your people, what you know about them, and what they know about you.

While those amazingly smart HR people didn’t really seem to appreciate my comments and call for replacing complexity with simplicity, I still believe that in most businesses, simple engagements can effectively and efficiently replace 70% of current people practices and achieve far superior results over time.


Many years ago I worked with a Financial Director who had around 150 people in his department. New to the business, he wanted to shift the culture he had inherited and move it towards a more open, collaborative and self-management space. His predecessors had run the department with a strong command and control approach. This was easily seen in small things like people having to ask permission from their managers to go to the bathroom.

Every month he’d collect the entire department together where he’d present the current business status, and breath new life and thoughts into the rules dictating how people worked together (the culture). I remember one of these meetings clearly as he announced the introduction of a very simple mechanism that had a massive impact on how people would interact in that department going forward.

The new mechanism was called ‘Coneversations’. It was extremely simple.

He invited any two people in his department, when they had some space in their work day, to go across the road to a small restaurant, buy 2 ice creams, and as long as they used that time to talk about the business, in any way shape or form, he’d reimburse them.

It was a spectacular stroke of genius. Suddenly people who had previously had to ask their manager to go to the bathroom (even though this was no longer necessary it was intrenched in the culture) had been given permission to make a call on their own workload, invite a colleague, and not have to ask anyone’s permission to leave the office for an ice-cream and a coneversation.

So simple. So inexpensive. So profound in the change it brought with it.

There will be Milk!

An email came down from the Head Office of a financial services business I was working with, to decree that due to the need for cost-cutting there would no longer be fresh milk made available at the coffee stations of any of the companies within the group. From now on it was powdered milk only. Chaos erupted. Words like ‘revolution’ were used all through the business, as employees became angry and even outraged at this cost-cutting decision.

The MD of the business also received the email. Having given it some thought he sent an email to the entire business, copying Head Office in and telling everyone there would be milk available at coffee stations.

As he explained a week later…… the response was overwhelming. Where he’d always struggled to get people to read and reply to extremely important emails that he would send, suddenly hundreds of employees all over the business were not only reading his few lines long email, they were sending him responses.

Simple. Highly Highly Effective.

A Bag of Jelly Beans

I’ve never been able to track the source of this story, but it’s beautiful in it’s simplicity. I have, however, heard of a South African company who took the principle and did their own thing. The original version of the story I heard, goes mostly like this….

In joining this unknown-to-me-company, people are met at reception and handed a bag of jelly beans. Their instruction is simple, take two days, wonder around the business, offer people some Jelly Beans, and report back here on the morning of your third day. That’s it, and it’s genius. Over time the company learns that people wondering around with a bag of jelly beans are newbies, and can therefore step up, introduce themselves and tell the newbie a little about them and what they do in the business. Newbie’s have no idea who’s who, and therefore have the freedom to wonder everywhere meeting different people. I can even imagine them potentially walking into the CEO’s office to offer Jelly Beans.

It doesn’t require anyone to drive it. It needs no process or systems. It’s costs a bag of Jelly Beans. There are no forms to fill in. I’ll bet it’s more effective as an on-boarding exercise / tool than anything you or I have ever experienced?

Culture is a delicate yet critical component of any organisation. I do think we can easily get caught up creating or executing people processes who’s complexity gets in the way of their effectiveness. Sometimes it’s the simple things, the little things that can make an extra-ordinarily large difference.