Living Up To Our Potential: How to Make Progress in HR
06.19.18   by Dave Ulrich

No question that in today’s changing business landscape, HR has the potential to respond to value-creating opportunities around talent, leadership, and organization, and to become pivotal for business success and employee well-being. But HR doesn’t always realize this potential.

So what holds HR back? We seem to know what skills HR professionals should demonstrate to deliver business and personal results, how to organize the HR department, how to innovate and integrate HR practices into solutions, and how to track and measure HR impact. But sometimes HR works in detrimental circles instead of beneficial spirals. Circle thinking causes HR to relearn what has been done before; spiral thinking helps HR to build from one set of ideas to another and improve. Circles repeat the past; spirals create the future. Circles regress and rediscover; spirals progress and invent.

Circular HR Thinking

HR circular thinking occurs when HR creates new words that repeat old concepts without adding to the thinking. Circular HR thinking does not make progress, respond to opportunities, or move the field forward. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849 said, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing). Updated words on traditional ideas may feel enticing, but they do not encourage HR progress.

The tells for circular HR thinking include:

  • Starts with what’s wrong. Generally, when someone begins a discussion by demeaning others, he or she will reinvent the others’ ideas as her or his own. I have seen some say that previous studies of employee commitment and engagement are wrong and the field should move to employee experience, focusing on having empathy for employees, defining moments that matter to employees, helping employees find their personal journey, and linking employee experience to customer experience (all of which have been thoroughly discussed in the employee engagement literature). Or someone said that the HR business partner model is wrong and that HR should be a part of the business (that is the HR business partner model).
  • Fails to build or complement other work. Gaining knowledge is a cumulative process. Few theories stand alone; but rather, they build on others. In a letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Too often HR innovations start by saying that the ideas are totally new rather than seeking to build on others.
  • Focuses on self more than others. When someone says, “I believe,” “I have found,” or “I know,” that probably means that the person takes credit more than shares credit. Taking personal credit often does not move the field forward as much as collectively sharing credit.
  • Offers simple answers more than insightful questions. A popular movement in HR simplifies and even over simplifies HR work into a few slides, a five-minute video, or headlines. These quick fixes (often called “click bait” in social media) often lack rigorous thinking and repeat maxims that others have done. These simple answers often use declarative verbs (“HR delivers business results”) more than tentative hypotheses (“HR may deliver business results”).

These circular HR efforts may distract us and limit HR’s ability to respond to the enormous opportunities for impact.

Spiral HR Thinking

Spiral HR work invents ideas, tools, and processes to solve both old and new problems. Spiral HR work makes progress, offers innovative ways to do HR work, and responds to opportunities. Spiral thinking pivots more than evolves ideas because it builds on previous ideas as a foundation for new insights.

For example, in regards to employee engagement, Marshall Goldsmith has called for a shift in accountability for employee sentiment by adding a six-word phrase to traditional employee engagement questions: “Did I do my best to _______” (set goals, find a friend a work, engage with my boss, earn my pay, etc.). This simple modifier to engagement questions shifts responsibility for employee engagement from the company to the individual thus moving the dialogue about employee sentiment forward. In my teaching, I strive for 20 to 25 percent new ideas every 18 to 24 months. This is a major challenge for me to stay fresh. For example, we have identified thirteen pivots in the HR business partner 2.0 model that move HR forward.

Tips for spiral HR thinking:

  • Focus on new HR outcomes. HR is not about HR but the outcomes of doing HR. When we run HR executive programs, we ask participants what they want to learn from their experience. They often focus on HR practice innovations (how to manager careers, develop leaders, use HR analytics, implement digital HR, etc.). We then ask them to put the words “so that” behind these goals to focus them on the outcomes of HR, not just the activities. And we encourage outside-in thinking where the outcomes include not only employee well-being and productivity but also customer share, investor confidence, and community reputation. By defining a complete stakeholder map, HR progresses.
  • Find new ways to get to the outcomes. For years, and continuing today, the pathway to key outcomes ran through talent (e.g., the war for talent). Today, we find that HR delivers the above stakeholder outcomes through talent (individual competencies), leadership (at all levels of the company), and organization (capabilities, culture, and teamwork). By pivoting HR from talent to organization (through leadership), HR spirals forward and makes progress.
  • Learn from and respect history. HR has a body of knowledge based on theory, research, and practice. This work becomes the foundation for HR certification as well as competence. In chip design, Intel moved forward with the Pentium through many chip revolutions—286, i386, i486, P5, P6, Pentium II, Pentium III, Pentium M, Pentium Dual-Core, Clarkdale, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, and Kaby Lake. None of these chips existed without their predecessors; tech iterations build on the past but evolve to a new future. In HR, Ed Lawler and John Boudreau offer insights on the evolution of HR practices, and our work on HR competencies shows the evolution of HR skills over 30 years. Concepts like disrupt, transform, or reinvent are outstanding goals but are more spiral when they build on the foundations.
  • Push for new insights. Personal curiosity that turns into institutionalized creativity fosters new insights. Curiosity sources from observing problems; sustained creativity comes from offering new solutions to those problems. HR faces many incredible challenges ahead in talent (help employees find meaning and purpose, work in the new digital age, have longer lifetime careers), in leadership (help leaders create investor value, build next-generation leadership, navigate paradox), and in organizations (create a network or ecosystem organization; build capabilities of external information sensing, customer obsession, innovation throughout, and agility everywhere). New insights to these challenges may come from experimenting, early adoption, adapting ideas from other settings, or continuous improvements.


These tips help create a virtuous spiral of HR progress.

As opportunities for HR’s impact increase, HR can live up to its potential by avoiding the vicious circle of repeating the past and replacing it with the virtuous spiral of creating the future.

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Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help HR professionals think and behave from the "outside-in". HR pros today must start with the organization's customers and investors first. To connect with one of our consultants and learn about our Strategic HR programs and events worldwide, click here