HR Doctor: Initiativitis

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



  • HR is constantly looking at the next new thing, the ‘sliver bullet’ that will solve everything.
  • HR people want to make their mark by doing lots of ‘HR stuff’ as opposed to actually making a difference to the business.
  • Due to a parallel infection of ‘delivery deficiency’ HR people don’t follow through but are always looking to start something new.
  • As a result they try to do too many things and never prioritise the things that they can actually deliver and will make the biggest difference.
  • Because they see their value in being busy, busy, busy they can never let go even when a project is no longer relevant.

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


  • 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.  In one company we worked with they 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 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.


1 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.

2 In another company I was doing some work with, after extensive research, we found there were more than 250 HR projects underway globally, regionally and locally. In many cases these were duplications of global initiatives being undertaken at a local level. 

What was most worrying was most 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 based on the impact the project had on the bottom line (to what extent did they increase revenue or decrease cost?) compared to how difficult it was to implement. 

In this case we managed to narrow this 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’.


  • The best cure I have seen, which was highlighted in our research into talent management, is to focus on implementing the basic HR processes really well rather than constantly reinventing them.
  • It requires constant and rigorous prioritisation.
  • It requires real business cases that start with a business issue rather than post-event rationalisation.
  • It requires an HR operational plan that focuses on what HR needs to do to deliver the business strategy, rather than an HR strategy 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.

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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