HR left for dead amongst business chaos

The world in which we work has experienced rapid change on a massive scale. Emerging from the financial crisis and exposed to new forms of competition, businesses now operate in the most volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous trading environment in living memory.

Most firms face what must feel like an endless battle for survival. Chaos, complexity and uncertainty have had a profound psychological and behavioural impact and approaches to problem solving that could be relied on to solve the challenges of the past are no longer appropriate for many we face today.

Legacy approaches contribute to uncertainty

Even the most positive leaders find their inability to plan several years into the future discomforting. Uncertainty itself is not a problem, but combined with financial and competitive pressures it often results in reactionary leadership, short-term decision making and paralysis by analysis. These are not the behaviours of outstanding organisations.

Besieged businesses are – in part – suffering because they made the right decisions during the downturn. They needed a firm hand on the tiller and leaders skilled in managing risk. Many of the leaders who survived the downturn don’t have the mindset required to thrive in a ‘VUCA’ world.

Businesses today need leaders that are capable of looking beyond the departmental and organisational boundaries that separate people into groups of “us” and “them”, create distrust and undermine effective collaboration.

The Center for Creative Leadership holds that modern leaders must find ways of working with others despite differing values, perspectives and beliefs in order to develop effective solutions to the most pressing challenges.

Death of HR

HR as we have known it is dead because it has not adapted to these new business requirements. Having achieved a  seat at the top table, most HR leaders have avoided disrupting the status quo and abdicated responsibility for driving the kind of people innovation and culture change required to build sustainable organisations for tomorrow.

Crippled by fear, risk aversion and an inability to see a clear path forward, they have tended to reinforce the models of the past, developing centres of excellence for day-to-day matters of control and compliance. This is the collective failure of business today in a microcosm.

People power

While success in the 20th century was driven by process, structure and encouraging people to function more like machines, success in the future requires us to make more of the human side of business. Most organisations are struggling because they don’t empower their people or tap into their full potential.

Humans have evolved to deal with uncertainty through collaboration and cooperation. Businesses need to encourage greater connection, conversation and experimentation. Curiosity is crucial: we need to always question what we do and seek new perspectives to identify potentially better solutions.

While different departments and reporting lines provide clarity of role and accountability, they also create artificial barriers that block progress. Organising people into silos of similar skills and functions reinforces the patterns that solve simple and complex problems, but does nothing to encourage the kind of conversations required to solve the ‘wicked’ problems we face today.

Wicked problems – where we know something isn’t right but cannot easily identify the cause and rapid change can make the right solution redundant even before it is implemented – can only be solved by talking to those with different perspectives on the same issue and using the iterative approach to problem solving championed by the lean startup movement.

Overcoming fear

Businesses also need to redefine how they view fear and failure. Most people allow fear to control of our lives: we need to take back that control and look behind the self-imposed curtains fear creates.

We need brave leaders willing to try new things and make decisions based on the best insight they can gather quickly. They need to develop greater tolerance for ‘failure’ and even celebrate it as a source of learning and a necessary part of success.

To remain relevant and deliver the kind of people innovation and cultural change organisations require to be successful in the modern world, HR leaders need to be strategists, technologists and innovators. Part of the answer lies in being willing to try new things and find points of view that disrupt how we view the world.

There is much we can learn from other walks of life about how to cope with significant pressure and perform when it counts the most. Virtuoso musicians and top level sports people deal with dynamic challenges and large audiences of critics on a day-to-day basis. They can be an incredible source of insight and inspiration.


We will discuss these issues further at PurpleBeach’s third annual Experience in London on Tuesday 28 April 2015. Please email to request your invitation.

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