Have You Walked Your Team into an Initiative Trap? See How to Escape

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A lot of us in HR are afflicted with a terrible disease. It's called Initiavitis*.

We love the latest ‘bright shiny thing’. The dictionary defines this as ‘something 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.  

Our lack of delivery often comes down to the inability to prioritise. So while new stuff keeps being added, the old stuff keeps being done, overloading the system with more and more initiatives. 

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


  • HR is continuously 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 will make the biggest difference.  I have a simple mantra. 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.  Usually, this includes the latest HR fads and fashions that have no basis in business need.


  • 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 most significant impact was on HR’s reputation.
  • Line managers who advocated 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.


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 more explicit: “Nick let it go. You did a good job, and 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, I am 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 regional and local level. What was most worrying was that many people in HR wouldn’t believe me. Not until I showed them the evidence as no one had 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 resourced correctly, 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’.


  • 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. One that focuses on what HR needs to do to deliver the business strategy, dealing with the issues, risks and implications. Rather than a departmental strategy, disconnected from the wider business, and full of the latest fads but not helping deliver tangible value.
  • It requires a focus on incremental improvement as much as continual radical change.
  • It requires a culture where people value challenge, based on the difference it will actually make, and whether it is better. Rather than what is done currently, set against the diseconomies of changing it.

What are the HR Tech implications?

HR Tech can provide elegant solutions to business issues, but too often we are dazzled by the allure of some amazing new technology.  Many tech providers will trumpet the amazing functionality of their latest products, all the gizmos, reporting tools, etc.  The danger is these are the ultimate ‘bright shiny things’.  Often literally!

There is a famous saying ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’,  paraphrased into English as “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’.  In the world of HR Tech, be cautious of vendors selling the answer to all of your problems.  At conferences and exhibitions, don't wander around their stalls being dazzled and trying to think about how you might apply it in your business.  Instead, come with a clear view of the business issue you are trying to fix, and it will be easier to identify the right HR Tech which can help you.  

About The Author: 

Nick Holley has a unique background that combines experience as an army officer, ten years as a successful futures and foreign exchange broker with Merrill Lynch and sixteen years in senior organisational, leadership and people development roles in large global organisations. In his last two roles Nick was partner in charge of learning for Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa for Arthur Andersen and director of global people development for Vodafone.

Nick will be speaking at UNLEASH World on the Future of Work

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