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Does HR Really Have a Role in Innovation?

This week I attended two events held by networks I’m part of (Strategic Capability Network and Toronto Organization Development Network) that looked at innovation from the organization and individual level.

Innovation risks being yet another superficial buzzword in the HR space, in part because our culture and history as a profession is strongly linked to compliance, risk mitigation, and standardization, which is at odds with an innovative mindset. And yet, it’s clear that to attract the best talent, maintain position in the market, and respond to stakeholder demands, we must embrace it.

If we put aside abstract notions of innovation and dig into the practical role that HR might play in creating more innovative workplaces, it’s clear that we have a genuine opportunity for impact.

Culture of Innovation

Atul Dighe’s SCN presentation ‘Innovation Culture’ highlighted findings from recent CEB research on  factors that drive a climate of innovation among R&D employees. The top three?

  • Senior leadership behavior – do senior leaders exhibit an authentic, not just stated, commitment to innovation? Do they prioritize and resource innovation projects? Are they open to new ideas and initiatives?
  • Rewards – referring mostly to recognition, rather than monetary rewards. Do they provide recognition to individuals for their innovation?
  • Ideation processes – Are there systems in place to pursue innovation, evaluate their effectiveness and spread them throughout the organization?

Two of these (senior leadership behavior and rewards) fall squarely into the wheelhouse of HR, and I’ll argue that the third has a direct link to our workplace culture and policies.

The Innovation Neuropathway

The second event looked at innovation from a very different perspective: our brains. Dr. Carlos Davidovich MD introduced a framework to understand the role the brain plays in innovative thinking.

He helpfully drew a distinction between creativity (having new ideas) and innovation (the process of developing and applying valuable and useful ideas).

Dr. Davidovich was intent on demystifying innovation as an abstract concept. Instead, he shared a process for innovative based on research, and explained the link to various modes of thinking at each stage. That innovation can be pursued and cultivated through the adoption of this approach is one that should reassure us it’s an attainable goal. And yet, it also highlights its misalignment to traditional ways of working. In particular, the need to create distance from current reality, and reflection or incubation time are not approaches most people’s working lives could easily accommodate.

Innovation process:

  1. Questioning the status quo (creating distance from reality)
  2. Data collection (innovation is a different way to combine or transform information)
  3. Incubation or creating the space for mental clarity (reflection, diffuse thinking mode)
  4. Flash, illumination, eureka (just wait)
  5. Elaboration or analysis (engaging the rational brain)
  6. Determination (to make it happen)

What Does this Mean for HR?

How might HR incorporate these findings into the way we support our organizations in becoming more innovative? A few thoughts:

Flexibility as the New Normal

The need to actively incorporate reflection or incubation time into innovative and creative work presents a challenge for most workplaces. Even those that claim to have ‘flexible working arrangements’ typically mean that some employees might adopt a schedule that has them start or end an hour or two later than ‘standard hours’. The idea that an employee in most organizations might tell their manager that they’re going to go for hike ‘to allow an idea to incubate’ seems highly implausible.

It seems obvious to point out that we can’t force people be creative or innovative by confining them to a cubicle for 8 hours a day, monitoring their work, expecting instant replies to e-mail and attendance and meetings that fracture their days. When it comes to creativity and innovation, pushing harder doesn’t produce better or faster results.

We can’t ever hope to be experts on how someone else does their best creative or innovative thinking, only they can know that, if we trust them to figure it out. This isn’t a policy thing. It needs to be baked in at all levels. Hire people who can work without a manager breathing down their neck. Set high, clear standards for work (including expectations for collaboration with others), and then let them work when and where it they can produce the best results.

Fair Does Not Mean Equal

We should aggressively eradicate the idea that all employees should work the same way, be treated the same way, be measured that same way. I have worked in environments where creative workers were assessed on whether they were at their desk by exactly 9 a.m. and how many hours they worked (staring at a computer), rather than the quality of their ideas and outputs. This is not quaintly outdated; it is actively focusing on the wrong thing and placing obstacles in the way of people doing their best work.

Banish the words “But it will set a precedent’ from your vocabulary and encourage others to do the same. Rather than view the world through a ‘policy’ lens, we must consider the principles on which a policy is based and encourage managers to apply those principles in a way that fits the context of the circumstances.

The corollary is that managers must possess and feel supported in exercising their good judgment, and be comfortable and adept at explaining their decisions to others. If Timmy does his best thinking while he’s walking through the park (and has the ideas and outputs to prove it) then why would anyone want to keep him glued to his desk? Because they’ll have to manage a few others employees asking to do the same? Maybe they’ll do better work too. And if not, addressing their requests is part of the job of being a manager. Hiding behind policy and precedent is the antithesis of innovation.

Context fluency among leaders and managers is also really important to translate a culture change goal like “be innovative” to the level of teams and individual roles. Innovation ideally looks very different in an R&D role versus a corporate accounting position, though the underlying principle (‘think of better and more useful ways to do X’) could certainly be important to both. Again, this requires ongoing conversation and interpretation within teams and one-on-one; a seminar or speech on innovation won’t suffice.

Help Leaders Look Past Short-term ROI

For decades HR has been told that to get a seat at the table we needed to know how to read a balance sheet and talk money and ROI. And yet, we find much of the corporate world mired in a vicious cycle of short-termism, basing decisions with long-term ramifications on results this quarter.

Changing the culture of an organization happens over the course of years, not months, and although cultivating an innovative culture may be high on the list for many executives, this effort isn’t the linear, direct-ROI initiative likely to inspire enthusiastic endorsement.

HR can and should rely on other data and evidence to bring added dimension to cost-saving or investment decisions that, on their surface, may seem unrelated to strategic goals like innovation. Take for example the frenzy over the last couple of decades to move to open office designs in order to save money ‘enhance collaboration’.

I personally believe that in a decade we’ll look back on the open-design office with sheepish bewilderment – did we really imagine that making people work in an environment where they literally could not get a moment of quiet reflection time to themselves was a boon for collaboration and creativity?

Cultivate Understanding of Innovation Processes

Way too often we’re pushed into a reactive and budget-starved approach to org change and development. This often shows up as ‘event based’ learning programs in which we have a speaker event, facilitated training, or one-day off-site that gives people a glimpse of the way things could be…and then everyone has to scramble to catch up on their e-mail and we’re suddenly back to business as usual. (This is what we’re trying to change at Actionable, by the way…)

HR and learning professionals need to shift their mindset (and the mindset of leaders) to focus on the adoption of deliberate, focused, and ongoing behaviours that lead to innovation. If there was one great take-away for me this week, it is that creativity and innovative are not individual gifts, or mysterious phenomena arising out of the right conditions, in fact there are methods and a processes that, if woven into the fabric of our work, can be relied upon to produce more innovative thinking.

Address Fear

No discussion of innovative in organizations is complete with a nod to the need for greater tolerance of risk-taking. Right, right…but we can’t really talk about tolerating risk if we aren’t willing to talk about the reasons behind our collective aversion to it. It’s pretty easy to talk about incentive structures or short-termism, but talking about fear and trust requires a level of vulnerability that is uncommon in teams and companies. If leaders can’t be trusted to treat failure as an acceptable cost of risk-taking and innovation, the natural fear we all have of failing will be compounded with a very rational conservatism. Then, when execs talk about a need for innovation, they further undermine their own credibility and the trust that managers and employees might otherwise place in them

HR might be best positioned to open up a conversation about fear, and guide the adoption of a shared vocabulary to name and discuss fear and its role in workplace climate and trust. Make no mistake, this is delicate and deliberate work, but has significant potential to show leaders the difficult and worthwhile path to address obstacles to innovation.

What Else?

Have you worked in a company or team you’d consider innovative? What do you think contributed to it?

Note: For a great resource on HR’s role in innovation, check out the CIPD’s impressive series (based on research done with the University of Bath).

Read This Week:  

Everything Changes: The New Normal After a Lymphoma Diagnosis – Alyssa Burkus, Medium

This is something a little different from my friend and colleague Alyssa Burkus. Earlier this year, Alyssa received her second Lymphoma diagnosis, and is currently undergoing treatment. I don’t get the chance to talk publicly about my admiration for her often enough, so let me take this opportunity to say that it is a privilege to work with her, and she has shown herself to be a consummate bad ass as she deals with this setback.

I’m embarrassed to say that before Alyssa’s recent diagnosis, I knew next to nothing about Lymphoma. I’d invite you to read this post about her experience, and educate yourself about this cancer.

Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul – Robert Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Derek Lusk , Harvard Business Review

Everyone hates office politics, but do we even know what we mean when we say that? I loved this article on the light and dark sides of office politics, and am now convinced that many of the most effective and admired people I’ve worked with were experts at using these tactics for good.

“An accumulation of research shows that high standing on these dimensions enhances job performance, influence, leadership, and advancement. What’s more, these political skills affect your career independent of your personality and intelligence. On the one hand, political skill can compensate for being less outgoing or not being the smartest person in the room. On the other hand, a deficit of political skill can derail otherwise intelligent, honest, and hard-working people.”

The Great Tech Panic: Robots Won’t Take All Our Jobs – James Surowiecki, Wired

A sobering look at the claims we’re all going to be replaced by robots, based on the evidence. Great article, well worth the time.

“Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future

It’s a dramatic story, this epoch-defining tale about automation and permanent unemployment. But it has one major catch: There isn’t actually much evidence that it’s happening.”

Want to Hear More?

I’m feeling very fortunate to be speaking at some great upcoming events. I’ve added an Events page to the blog, even though it feels a bit weird and self-promotional…if you will be attending any of these please do let me know!


Image credit: Tim Graf via

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