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April 11, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Paving Things Over

The day has finally come when work has begun on a new circle driveway at the HR Doctor’s house. When completed, this project will add convenience, value and beauty to the house. The tradeoff is about one week of chaos and thousands of dollars in cost for the paving stones and landscaping.

Early this morning, the contractor came by to discuss alternatives for part of the walkway. We could either dig out the old cement and put in the paving stones from scratch or pave over the old walkway and put the new pavers on top. We decided on the latter approach.

However, in thinking about the decision we had been asked to make, it occurred to the HR Doctor that this is the same question we are asked regularly in our professional lives as well as in our personal lives. Should we give up on a problem area, abandon it and start again from scratch, or should we take some action that paves over the problem and builds upon what existed before.

Very often in our society we adopt a "throwaway" style. When the DVD player, the refrigerator, or the home computer breaks, we generally end up throwing it away and replacing it rather than repairing it. It becomes easier to send the old appliances to the landfill rather than to invest the time and energy to find a way to repair the damage and continue using the existing appliance.

We often adopt this throwaway approach in our relationships with other people. It may be easier to get a "no fault" divorce than to work hard at repairing a dysfunctional marriage. It may be easier to put the child in front of a big screen television with a video game for hours at a time than to take the time to help the child grow and learn with one-on-one communications.

At work it may be easier to transfer employees we regard as having behavior or performance problems than to constructively address those problems.

The seasoned HR professional, however, is not as quick professionally to decide to throw away the system and replace it. While we may do that in our private lives with the last year’s electronic toys, at work we are stewards of taxpayers’ money. We owe it to the people we represent to continue to search for innovation and exciting strategic visions of what could be. However, we also owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to temper that excitement with a realistic set of expectations about whether the "eliminate and replace" philosophy is really better than the "improve and continue" approach.

Giving up on old systems and the old models has some value just as it does when you are salivating in an auto show room over a new car instead of repairing and living with the five-year-old Volvo that seems to be running acceptably well. There is room in the world for both views. In fact, when considering how an agency should evolve in the future, thoughtful consideration of both approaches should be essential for every professional in public administration. Paving over may be the right decision for a new driveway, but not necessarily for setting a public policy.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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