It's an oft-voiced sentiment that unites consultants, HR execs and Dragons' Den investors alike. Unfortunately, though, it isn't true. Business is not all about people, and behaving as if it is will often make things worse for your people, not better. Here's why.
Suppose, for instance, that we are a project-based organisation, and projects are consistently delivered late and over budget. If we think it's all about the people, then we see a skills deficit. We need to train people in project management, or time management, or...
But it won't work. Taking a strategic view will probably reveal projects that simply will not generate enough revenue to pay for the resources needed to deliver them. There is nothing the team working on the projects can do about that.
Alternatively, consider this. Sales makes promises to customers without knowing what production can deliver. Production makes its plans in ignorance of what has been sold. Classic 'communication problem' - except it isn't. The real issue is incentives. Sales objectives look only at what is sold, regardless of whether it's delivered on time. Production's targets look only at efficiency of output.
It's possible that both of these departments can meet their own objectives while producing an overall result that is unacceptable to the customer. Again, no amount of communications training will help the people, because they are still stuck in their own silos. Somebody needs to take a holistic look at the situation.
In both of these examples, 'it's all about the people' simply means individuals are berated for failures, which should actually be laid at the door of senior management. This kind of thing makes me very angry: at best it displays gross ignorance on the part of senior management, at worst it is an alibi for them not facing up to their responsibilities.
So, is it 'all about the people'? Only once you have given them a clear strategy, a well-designed organisation and a sensible set of incentives. But you know what? Once you have done all that, you often find that your people were brilliant all along.
Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. For more, subscribe to his newsletter at alastairdryburgh.com