HR Doctor: Action paralysis

Personnel Today’s HR doctor Nick Holley diagnoses some diseases common to HR and suggests the cures that might restore it to health.

Action paralysis


  • HR thinks it is doing lots of things, that it’s busy, busy, busy, but actually it is seduced by the appearance of activity when it isn’t actually taking action to address its issues. Examples of this include:
    * Overemphasis on consensus – HR spends all its time managing stakeholders and searching for consensus by which time it’s too late.
    * Over complication – gold plating everything rather than creating solutions that are fit for purpose.
    * Perfectionism – trying to find the perfect solution so never getting round to actually doing anything.
    * Irrelevant benchmarking – constantly hunting for best practice without recognising the context or the practicalities. Best practice irrelevant of context is irrelevant. 
  • As with so many of these diseases action paralysis can be caused by overdoing something good. Analysing the data and stepping back to understand the context and the situation is great as it focuses you on doing the things that address the root cause of the situation. Spending your whole time analysing and never coming to a conclusion results in the related disease of ‘analysis paralysis’.


  • The impact is really simple: HR never delivers anything of value because it’s too tied up with running around and around chasing its own tail. For a while people are impressed by this seeming hive of activity, but as the underlying problems get worse and worse eventually someone with power notices and outsources HR.


1 In one organisation I worked in I remember a consultant telling me that she couldn’t believe how much time we spent managing stakeholders. Given it was a complex matrix organisation, but also a fast moving business in a dynamic industry, we were delivering solutions that the business would sign up to but months after they were really needed. 
I was also killing myself racking up the air miles flying round and round the world constantly changing our plans to get this or that person to agree, with the added downside that the constant compromise diluted the impact of what we finally delivered.


  • HR people should learn about Pareto analysis. Pareto, an Italian mathematician showed that 20% of what we do has 80% of the desired impact. HR needs to learn where to focus, when enough is good enough.
  • HR needs to learn to ‘hold a strong opinion weakly’. This means doing enough analysis to form a robust opinion but then beginning to move. The ‘only outcome you won’t get is the one you expect’, so it is critical to pilot things and learn from them; changing your opinion to fit new data and realities. The danger with over analysis is you take too long to form an opinion but then won’t change it to fit an emergent and unexpected reality.
  • The military have a saying: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. They plan but they recognise they need to implement the plan quickly so they can learn. This means planning the detail as close to reality as possible (usually this isn’t at group head office) and only planning the detail up to the point where you get the first feedback on what is actually happening. By letting go of the urge to control by planning detail in advance HR can have greater control by responding flexibly to what is actually happening.
  • Business is moving ever faster so HR has to learn to move at the speed the business is moving at. This means prioritising focusing time on the vital few and focusing on making things simple enough though no simpler.

By Nick Holley, director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School. The centre works with members from the private, public and third sectors to change the debate around HR; carrying out applied research aimed at advancing current thinking, and delivering programmes to enhance the quality of business and partnering skills for senior and high-potential HR professionals.

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