HR is increasingly being challenged to help with generating greater innovation. Its responses have typically been tackling the usual suspects: investing in innovation training, including “the ability to innovate” in leadership promotion criteria, adapting psychological assessments to try and spot the innovators. Unfortunately, these interventions rarely create truly innovative environments.
HR has grown up seeing its role as driving cost efficiencies and operational effectiveness rather than creating value through innovation resulting in our core processes having compliance and conformity at their heart. If we want to play a vital role in creating an environment where innovation thrives, we have a lot more to do.
How do we set up HR as a force for innovation then? Well, we can start from these for suggestions: empowering the front line, getting rid of the annual cycle, moving away from traditional team structures and finally, for HR to remodel itself as an innovator.
1. Empowering the front line
Innovation can often, wrongly, be seen as something that comes from the centre – that is about large scale investment or having an innovation hub from which all the great ideas spring. But there is another school of thought that innovation comes from those people who really know and interact with the customer – our front-line staff.
They are the ones who see the problems caused by centrally-driven policies, the ones who hear the customer voice most frequently and can often see things that need to change. Yet they are rarely empowered to challenge the status quo. They are rarely given the authority to make the changes. They are rarely rewarded for taking the risk of not doing what they’ve always done.
HR can play a big part in creating the conditions necessary for a front line who doesn’t just witness the need for change but feels empowered to make it. We need to consider how innovation could run throughout the entire employee experience that we create through our numerous processes, rather than designing these processes in isolation of one another.
2. Getting rid of the annual cycle
We also need to look hard at our propensity to deliver people processes on an annual cycle and how this undermines our organisation’s ability to move at speed. Annual performance appraisals. Annual engagement surveys. Annual talent reviews. Annual bonus schemes. These belong to a more sedentary era.
Companies with strong innovative cultures don’t wait to give feedback until the end of the cycle. They don’t want to know what their employees think and feel every 12 months. They don’t wait until the talent review process draws to a close to move and promote great people. They don’t wait until the bonus scheme has been calibrated to say thanks. Just because the business results follow an annual cycle doesn’t mean that we should.
3. Moving beyond the org chart
HR has traditionally focused on, supported and reinforced team structures shown on an organisation chart. Our objectives cascade through these hierarchies, our engagement surveys measure these teams, we calibrate talent, performance and reward within these team boundaries. We assign them an HR business partner. But innovation typically comes through the connection of individuals who sit in different teams, across traditional departmental lines or even across different companies.
Just recognising that innovation will happen through the breaking down of traditional silos is a start but it raises some serious questions about how we collect insight and data (greater use of network analysis?), how we think about recruitment (building talent communities within and outside our organisations?) and how we structure our own HR teams (moving away from the HR business partner model?).
4. HR as innovation role models
Finally, as that motivational poster says, “Be the change you want to see” – we need to be role models for innovation within HR. We can bring new and fresh perspectives to our work by partnering with teams outside of our domain. We can develop our abilities to experiment, to fail fast and move at the pace of our most demanding clients.
We can choose not to wait till our competitors have implemented first, thereby making it ‘safe’ for us to do so too. We can extend our learning beyond attending HR conferences and hearing about best practice in our own field. We can focus on outcomes rather than process. We can segment our markets and try to customise for different types of clients.
We can recognise that it doesn’t have to be perfect – that progress may be better than perfection.