False Dichotomies

This blog post might be a contender for the award of ‘the most tenuous link of an unrelated topic to HR ever’. Stay with me. I’m going to talk about quantum theory, but once I have finished I do have a serious HR point to make.

I’m interested in physics. Black holes, space and time, parallel universes, that sort of stuff. This should not be taken to mean that I understand any of these topics at some sort of significant level. Like many people, I purchased a copy of A Brief History of Time, but I’ll confess to giving up after three chapters.

A fairly clever chap called Schrodinger came up with a thought experiment. Consider a cat (not a real one, HR cat fans). The cat gets put into a steel box, along with some radioactive material. There is a 50/50 chance that the radioactive material will decay, leading to the death of the cat. If you apply quantum theory, this means that the cat in the box is both alive and dead at the same time. Only when the lid comes off the box and the cat is observed does it actually become one or the other. This is a bit weird, I know. The experiment was a paradox – it was designed to show that you can’t apply certain quantum theories to real life stuff. Like cats. It all gets a bit absurd.

What Schrodinger’s experiment says to me, is that theories are great, but when they collide with the real world things get messy. The centre does not hold.

Note to readers: the HR bit is coming up soon.

Here is my version of Schrodinger’s experiment. Put a HR manager in a box. Include in the box a copy of Ulrich’s Human Resource Champions. Without observation, they are both strategic and operational at the same time. Only when an internal customer turns up do they become one or the other.

And then when they get out of the box they will invest ever such a lot of energy in pointless debates and soul searching. If not carefully managed, they might just set up a Shared Service Centre and demand a seat the table.

In Schrodinger’s experiment, the cat was two things simultaneously. HR people often try to be two things at the same time too. Neither is really true. Schrodinger’s cat defied common sense; it has to be one or the other. HR people are also one or the other, depending on the need, the customer, the problem, the moment in time. We change roles, flex, roll with it. And that is just fine.

It’s not a question of choosing between two options. There is no either / or. It is a false dichotomy. You don’t have to make a choice between being strategic or transactional. There are other options. And I don’t mean a Centre of Excellence. In real life, most people don’t spend all day sat in one box. Just today, I did a bit of strategy stuff, then I tweaked a policy, drafted a letter talked recruitment and then employee relations. And then I made a cup of tea.

We don’t need boxes or label or categories. We complicate things enough, for ourselves. Resist the urge to put yourself in a box.

Just do good people stuff, every single day.

Note: another version of the theory is that the cat is both and alive and dead, albeit in different, parallel universes. It felt like this might take things a little too far….

9 thoughts on “False Dichotomies

  1. The quantum world is very small and it is easy to switch quickly from one state to another when you are a small thing interconnected with other small things.

    When we are bigger, we take longer to change from one state to another and we tend to want to have some kind of plan before we make that kind of commitment.

    Duality can be a trap since there are some many states of being other than and/or one/off when we are operating on a larger scale but random interreaction can be an odd way to plan an HR departments contribution and not every MD is up for heartful simplicity with no plan!

    Keep your quarks and gluons together at all times and remember the strong and weak forces are always with you.

  2. Pingback: Best Blogs 20 Sep 2013 | ChristopherinHR

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