The HR Doctor: Initiativitis

Let’s face it. A lot of us in HR love the latest ‘bright shiny thing’ (the dictionary defines this as ‘something that is widely appealing or attention grabbing for its superficial characteristics but which is usually not useful, substantial or long lasting’), so we keep starting more and more new initiatives. Lack of delivery often comes down to the inability to prioritise. So whilst new stuff keeps being added, the old stuff keeps being done, overloading the system with more and more initiatives.

* Note: Complications can set in leading to projectitis, programmitis, let’s-brand-everythingitis and the often fatal flavour-of-the-monthitis.

Symptoms

  • HR is constantly looking at the next new thing, the ‘silver bullet’ that will solve everything, rather than really analysing what the actual problem is. I often ask HR people ‘what question is this the answer to?’ and fail to get an answer.
  • HR people want to make their mark by doing lots of ‘HR stuff’ as opposed to actually making a difference to the business. This is due to too much HR development focusing on HR, not on the business.
  • Due to a parallel infection of ‘delivery deficiency’, HR people don’t follow through but are always looking to start something new.
  • Because they see their value in being busy, busy, busy they can never let go even when a project is no longer relevant.
  • As a result, they try to do too many things and never prioritise the things that they can actually deliver and that will make the biggest difference. We have a simple mantra. If you prioritise everything against value added and ease of implementation, then stop doing everything that fits in the no value added and almost impossible to actually do box. This usually includes the latest HR fads and fashions that have no basis in business need.

Impact

  • The focus on continual reinvention confuses everyone, especially the line, and stresses out the HR team as they run harder and harder to stand still. One company we worked with had changed their leadership framework five times in six years. It cost money and time to make each change but the biggest impact was on HR’s reputation.
  • Line managers who supported their work became increasingly disillusioned, while those who didn’t support them simply saw it as a vindication of their scepticism – “you told us this was the right framework six years ago, you constantly change it, so when do you expect to finally get
it right?”
  • HR becomes marginalised, de-motivated and the best people start leaving.

Examples

I remember years ago as a young, high-energy, passionate, committed HR manager (I have a long memory!) working hard to complete a major project. A few weeks before completion the business carried out a major and unexpected acquisition. Overnight my project was irrelevant. I went to my boss to discuss how I could adjust it to make it relevant to the new world. He took me aside and very clearly told me it was irrelevant. I still pushed; I’d spent months
on it and it had become my baby, part of who I was. My boss had to be even clearer: “Nick let it go. You did a good job, everyone knows that but if you keep pushing something that isn’t relevant to the business you are going to alienate a lot of people, including me. So, let it go.” It was great advice. I went back to my desk, killed it and focused on merger integration work.

In another company we were doing some work with, extensive research revealed there were 278 HR projects underway globally, regionally and locally. In many cases there were duplications of global initiatives being undertaken at a local level. What was most worrying was that many in HR wouldn’t believe us until we showed them the evidence, as no one had actually done the analysis. We worked on a clear prioritisation process using the matrix outlined above. Eventually we narrowed it down to only seven projects that were fully supported by the business, were properly resourced, effectively implemented and had a measurable business impact. Not only was HR put under less pressure, but the line really appreciated the focus on the ‘vital few’.

Cures

  • It requires constant and rigorous prioritisation. It requires real business cases that start with a business issue rather than post-event rationalisation. Indeed, I would argue that if you struggle to create a business case there probably isn’t one.
  • It requires an HR operational plan that focuses on what HR needs to do to deliver the business strategy – rather than an HR strategy, disconnected from the business, that’s full of the latest fads but doesn’t deal with the issues, risks and implications of the business strategy.
  • It requires a focus on incremental improvement rather than continual radical change.
  • It requires a culture where people value challenge based on the difference it will actually make and whether it is actually better than what is currently done – set against the diseconomies of changing it.
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