Simplicity vs Evidence

This blog is about the danger of simplicity. Koen Smets pleads for an evidence-based approach in HR that avoids the simple recipes.

The Quest for Simplicity

Albert Einstein’s equation, e = mc2 is arguably the most widely known formula in the world. It encapsulates the equivalence between mass and energy. It is a brilliant example of how a fundamental truth can be expressed with a few simple symbols. Einstein is also credited with having said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
There is no hard evidence he actually did say these words. But they do capture the fact that simple rules and formulas have great appeal. Why is this? They act as shortcuts so that we don’t need to do too much work or think too hard when we are pursuing a goal. Just think of the way new diets and fitness hypes pop up with great regularity. They offer us an uncomplicated way to the perfect weight or a healthy life.
Such fads are not just found on the covers of lifestyle magazines. They are also common in management. Employee engagement or mindfulness, anyone? Concepts like these are too often applied without much thought. Why? Because they look like an obvious and simple route to better business results.
And that quest for simplicity is quite widespread. A recent article in HR Magazine carried the introduction, “HR can’t seem to decide whether outsourcing or keeping things in-house is the best way to go.” The article itself offers considerable depth and nuance. However, the intro implies that there is an option that is ‘the way to go’. It’s independent of the context, or indeed irrespective of what ‘things’ are. This is of course nonsense.
A simple, generic instruction is not enough to determine which of the options is appropriate for what elements of HR (or any other business function, for that matter). That requires relevant and specific evidence. And this is precisely the problem with many methods used in management. This is not just about the passing fads. There are also longer standing ones, from MBTI personality profiling to forced ranking and NLP. They lack evidence.

Evidence-based Management

Rob Briner, a professor of Organizational Psychology at Bath University, questions the evidence of much common wisdom in HR with almost heroic relentlessness. And more often than not he exposes the lack of it. It is thanks to efforts like this that there is increasing attention for evidence-based management.
This is good news. But we need to be careful that ‘evidence-based’ doesn’t become yet another superficial and hollow fashion label. We should be sceptical towards anything that comes with the evidence-based stamp. Not all evidence is created equal.
Yet even if the evidence for a method or technique looks solid, there is something even more important to bear in mind. To what extent did the context play a role in that evidence? What has been shown to work with the staff of a high-tech company in Eastern Germany is not necessarily so for the employees of a food manufacturing company in the Northeast of England, or for a countrywide retailer in the USA.
It is very simple to slavishly copy policies and methods that others have applied with apparent success. But that violates the maxim attributed to Einstein. It’s too simple. Evidence obtained elsewhere is at best a good first indicator of efficacy. The only way to really find out whether something works in an organization is to actually try it out.
Sure, gathering your own evidence may require a bit more work and a bit more thinking. But that is precisely where Human Resources Management can (and should) add value to an organization. Be sceptical, and experiment. Show that an approach works, how it works, where it works, and under what conditions.
Avoid simplicity, also in evidence-based management.
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