Wednesday, 28 September 2011

People People – Rise Up!

HR can be a powerful tool of innovation 

At ?What If! we’ve worked with many excellent HR leaders and seen first hand their potential to influence the innovation agenda.  We’ve heard their stories of how they got great at it (and coached many).  But even the most respected and effective HR leaders often struggle to articulate their role in innovation.

At ?What If! we’ve identified eight levers that we think HR should be pulling to enable innovation.  The first four are less obvious but relatively easy to implement so I’ve spent more time on them:

1.   Media plan the boss.  People play safe when they don't know where the boundaries of acceptability are at work.  But countering this by announcing that we ‘embrace failure’ is one of the silliest things to say about innovation, it doesn't help at all.  Fear of screwing up your career is a comically ironic subject.  Most bosses bemoan their subordinates’ lack of guile and guts, whilst the view from below is that bosses snuff out unfamiliar, even slightly risky activity.  HR can play a critical role straightening out dangerous myths around risk.  Easily the most effective route is to seek out stories that demonstrate to what extent the boss appreciates risk, or even takes risks themselves.  Our work on a new insight program for a major pharmaceutical client was transformed when the HR team ‘packaged’ the story of how the CEO was spending more time with customers, how hard he found it initially but ultimately how rewarding.  Very quickly people knew that they had to get out of the office, to experience first hand the role that their brand played in customer’s lives.   HR at it’s very best is like a newsroom.  Collecting the facts, romancing into memorable stories and either helping the CEO get the tone right or even leaking the story.  We all know that gossip powers the grapevine.  Colleagues pay attention to stories about what the boss has done, they tend to disregard what he or she says should happen.

2.   Selective Destruction of Process.  Innovation can be killed by process and the enthusiasm needed to drive ideas over the line wilts in the face of endless rounds of proof.  At SRI in California CEO Curt Carlson (who also serves on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship) holds ‘Watering Hole’ meetings where colleagues can appeal directly to him to leapfrog the process.  At UKTV (the new Scripps / BBC Worldwide joint venture) CEO Darren Childs is speeding innovation by inviting swift ‘on your feet’ pitches for any innovative idea’s – from new TV shows to technology disruptive to core business.  This ‘process by-pass’ has given birth to a ton of new ideas including a live comedy night and a radical technology investment.  Brilliant HR leaders spot where ‘the way we always do things’ is log-jamming innovation and experiment with clever ways to stick two fingers up to process. 

3.   Stop the organisation being too damn nice!  Recently we were tasked with recruiting a team within a client’s business to peel off and incubate radical new ideas.  We arrived at a meeting with our list of candidates.  The client’s HR people had theirs too.  And guess what – they were 100% different!  HR had picked an articulate, rational and clubbable bunch.  We had picked a different team of obsessive, irritating and outspoken people.  Our joint conclusion was that HR defaulted to team-players; people who knew the rules, knew what wining looks like, were happy with their roles and following the leader.  In contrast we had picked collaborators, people who were emotionally charged, maybe obsessive, definitely passionate.  They were often angry, externally focused, searching for something.  The nuances between efficient teamwork and gritty collaboration are not commonly understood but HR do need to recruit collaborators if they want meaningful change.  The alternative is the commercial equivalent of a sort of Stepford Wives team; polite, comfortable, un-stretching and in the long term deadly.  The best HR directors know how to spot innovators!

4.   Start a Cake Club.  Consider the customer journey of taking a holiday, there are multiple touch-points; choosing, booking, travelling, snoozing on the beach… get the picture.  The point is that while a customer experiences the holiday at an aggregate, joined up level the ‘supplier’ will often be organised in silos, each attending to and being measured on just a slice of the journey.  HR leaders realise that silo led innovation is useless because a bad experience in another part of the chain can ruin good work elsewhere.  HR leaders are well placed to create better networks so that colleagues forge relationships outside their patch.  At Innocent, the recent Coca Cola acquisition, they have a cake club, a cheese club, a beer club!  Why?  The networks forged across departments make business run much more smoothly.  It’s easier to ask someone to stay late and ‘please just run that new product down the packing line for me’ if you’re both in the cake club.

5.   Recruit activists and neutralise the naysayers.  Everyday innovation doesn't happen with ‘quite engaged’ colleagues or in an environment rich in cynics.  You need a strong core of people who give a damn.

6.   Craft a higher purpose.  By definition, innovation is activity outside the familiar, a higher purpose stretches us beyond the products and services we sell today and allows us to play with unfamiliar but still strategically ‘on target’ ideas.

7.   Carve out space and provide air cover.   Innovating as an extra curricular activity doesn't work.  HR can  help innovators carve out proper time and a separate space to ‘think different’.  They are well placed to change the rules around regular updates – the innovation teams need the license to get lost.

8.   Fight the Furrowed Brow.  Innovation can be squashed by the look on someone’s face.  We have trained over 5000 people how to ‘react’ to an innovation pitch, whether it’s a casual coffee station conversation or a super formal boardroom proposal.  HR can definitely change the way people react to the unfamiliar.

Do you agree with this recipe?  Please forward it to your HR colleagues and send me your comments.  Next blog I’m getting into the difference between teamwork and collaboration.  It’s fascinating stuff.  Contact me at