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March 28, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Paralysis of Choice

In a recent trip to several electronic stores for the purpose of drooling over a possible high definition TV purchase, the HR Doctor was confronted by half a dozen beautiful large screen TV sets with amazing picture quality and an array of features that would make a NASA engineer question her own knowledge of electronics.

Choice is a highly prized commodity in the world. In America, we are so amazingly fortunate that we have more choices than probably any society in the world, or in history for that matter. I have choices ranging from the mundane, such as what brand of cat food to buy to prevent the HR cat, Nimbus, from shredding my body parts, to more critical ones such as those affecting my health care or my ability to retire with financial security and dignity.

Reading about elections in the Ukraine, Iraq and in the Palestinian territories reminds me of how important it is not to take for granted Ñ as we so often do Ñ such choices as the right and the opportunity to vote.

Too much choice, however, can lead to complacency and to what the HR Doctor described in a previous article as "the seduction of comfort."

As decision makers, we can be seduced when things are going so well. Our comfort leads to complacency, which can lead to inaction and arrogance. The seduction of comfort leads us to fear the unknown and to let opportunities for great changes pass us by. In part, this is derived from the fact that change often makes us uncomfortable.

Conversely, if the fear of making a choice paralyzes us, we will find, ultimately, far greater discomfort and failure in our personal lives and in our lives of public service.

The choices of what brand and type of television to buy, or what donut shop to visit, represent simple metaphors for the much more important choices that we make. Choice is a concept to be treasured. It is a concept to be fine tuned by gathering the best available information and by creating a staff culture in our government agencies where innovation and process improvements are recognized and rewarded staff behaviors.

All too often, department heads, city and county managers and elected officials don’t want to "rock the boat." It’s sometimes easier, though not necessarily the right thing to do, to put off considering a new innovation until after retirement vesting or after the next election. If this is a chronic problem in the way you make decision, then you might as well substitute the phrase "after I die" for some of those phrases mentioned above.

Chronic "putting-off" behavior leads us down a path of linear thinking. Linear thinking means making an assumption that tomorrow will be much like today or yesterday, and planning for the future is based on the past.

This is a fundamental model we use in incremental budgeting. We also use it in the design of next year’s "totally redesigned" new car models. We use it in decision making on how we want to fight wars or how we will educate our children.

The cure to the "deer in the headlights" decision paralysis is to respond to policy making opportunities by asking why we are continuing to do something in a certain way, and what if we did it differently? How can we bring about a spectacular improvement, not just a marginal improvement in productivity or satisfaction? If you remain satisfied with the 1.65 percent growth in the number of paperclips counted per employee per month then you might as well pay the auditor’s salary and crawl into a hole while you complete your retirement papers. Your decision making has become what you hope your children’s will not turn out to be.

An excessive reliance on the incremental and on counting beans represents an assault on and a stifling of the spirit of innovation. As an observer of society and behavior for several decades, the HR Doctor’s fear is that as a nation, and as individuals, we are sacrificing innovation for comfort and for what we regard as safety. That represents a trend which must be fiercely resisted by every means available as along as those means are not illegal, immoral or fattening.

So the HR Doctor wishes you an enjoyable shopping experience in the land of choice and spectacular results when you next consider an innovative public policy decision!


Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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