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To What End? A Vital Question in Human Resources

Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 01/05/2009
As executives we learn very quickly that one of the most important contributions we make is frequently not offering the right solution, but rather asking the right question. There have been hundreds of articles written over the past 25 years or more in the business press on what famous and not-so-famous executives think the "right questions" are. Most were simply common sense, while others were a bit more esoteric. All had some value.

In my business management experience, there was one question that was the most important at all levels of the company in nearly all situations: To what end? This question also really gets to the heart of the matter for most tactical and strategic human resources issues. It may also be the hardest to respond to because in order to answer it legitimately and convincingly, a great deal of thought and consideration has to be given to the consequences of a human resources decision.

The genesis of this question stems from the most basic premise of business: What are we trying to accomplish and why? Business decisions by nature are made to reinforce or alter the course of the enterprise. The course the enterprise is on today is the cumulative outcome of decisions up to this point, and this is also true for the human resources department. Theoretically, if we simply keep doing what we are doing in human resources (and the business environment we operate in keeps doing what it is doing) we will stay on the same trajectory we are on today. Business, at least U.S. business, never seems to be satisfied with the course it is on. Human resources managers either want to turn around human resources trends that they are not happy with or exploit human resources trends that are in their favor to an even greater degree. We are all constantly in a state of flux and expansion of effort. And this is good.

Hence the question: "To what end?" I would ask my business management team this question after they had proposed an initiative because I wanted to understand three things from their answer.
  1. Does the human resources recommendation take us where we said we want to go? If a human resources department is intentional in its approach to the opportunities it is trying to exploit (i.e. it has a stated objective) and it is intentional to the actions it is going to take to benefit from the opportunities (i.e. it has a strategy) then all human resources initiatives and recommendations for change of course should be changes that more accurately hone in on the stated business objective. Human resources recommendations that cannot clearly be linked to the stated objective should be dismissed.
  2. Does the human resouces recommendation have a logical and high probability of yielding the business outcome it portends? Logical leaps are prolific in business. It is in our nature to become attached to and with the conclusion we hope to realize. This emotional bond frequently hinders our ability to see the logical leaps we are making that may not be supported in reality. Human resources recommendations that have a "miracle" occurring in the process to yield the stated outcome should be reconsidered to ensure they are grounded in unemotional logic.
  3. If we realize the stated objective of the human resources recommendation, is the outcome offered truly among the best outcomes we can hope for? The human resources recommendation may get us further down the path to our overall business objective. It may be supported logically and have a high probability of success. But, if we choose among all of the potential paths we could follow, is this the best available option to our human resources department today? Is there another option we should consider that is an even better fit, all along being disposed to taking a "less than perfect" option today vs. waiting days, weeks, months or even years for the "perfect" option?
By coaching your human resources team through the question, "To what end?" you will help them think through how and why they arrived at a particular conclusion, the applicability and practicality of their conclusion and how to stretch their brains and their courage to entertain other human resources options that may seem less obvious. And always keep in mind this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, "Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing in the stresses and the danger."

Through it all, keep your human resources team moving forward at all times and fight the plague of becoming inert and paralyzed by perpetual analysis. In the end, do something and you will win!
Doug Wilwerding
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 01/05/2009