The Innovative HR Leader

The Innovative HR Leader | Human Resource Executive Online Two experts from an innovation and training consultancy write about the vital role HR leaders play in an organization's innovation efforts.

Monday, March 2, 2009
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Economic downturns increase the importance of innovation. Sure, cost-cutting to survive today is critical, but companies have to plant seeds for future growth even as the ground may be getting pulled out from under them. After all, the increasing pace of change means that standing still is equivalent to falling further behind.

Human resource leaders have a vital role to play in accelerating their organizations' innovation efforts. Specifically, they can speed up innovation efforts by addressing areas that typically cause well-intentioned organizations to struggle. Don't know where to start? Consider the four questions below.

1. Does the organization have a common definition of innovation?

Innovation can mean different things to different people. If an organization does not agree on a common definition of innovation, too much will get lost in translation. Imagine a team trying to launch a new growth business where half of the team members speak Spanish and half speak Swedish. How well would they be able to communicate?

A common language spurs productive conversations and meaningful actions. Consider Intel. In the late 1990s, Harvard Business School Professor and Innosight co-founder Clayton Christensen made 20 separate trips to Intel to educate managers on findings emerging from his research. Today, Christensen estimates that managers used the concepts to launch businesses that contribute close to $15 billion in revenues.

At one point, Christensen asked Andy Grove, who was then Intel's chief executive officer, to explain the value his work provided. Grove told Christensen, "It gave us a common language and a common way to frame the problem so that we could reach consensus around counterintuitive courses of action."

A facilitated session with senior leaders can help to frame a common definition of innovation. Document that definition and then empower managers to institutionalize the definition within their teams. Organize brown-bag-lunch sessions to discuss innovation in the news and compare examples with the organization's definition.

2. Does the organization have a "safe place" for innovation?

All too often, senior leaders announce innovation's importance by telling people to "go forth and be innovative!" Without dedicated resources -- both people and money -- and appropriate organizational structures, exhortations rarely translate into results.

Procter & Gamble shows the power of a disciplined approach to innovation. The company backs a public commitment to innovation with a variety of structures, such as "FutureWorks," a dedicated division of managers chartered with exploring completely new business opportunities.

IBM holds "Innovation Jams," where ideas are drawn from all parts of the organization during a global online brainstorming session, filtered by a team of senior leaders, and then funded as business units.

If innovation is an "unfunded mandate," consider working with the senior team to develop a safe spot where dedicated resources can pursue new growth efforts without being distracted by their "day jobs."

One consumer healthcare company formed a cross-functional team to create an "incubator" for innovative ideas. The HR representative on the team played a vital role in developing job descriptions for team members and selecting appropriate candidates to pilot the incubator. If your organization is creating a structure to pursue innovation, make sure you are part of the dialogue.

3. Does the organization have a regimen for strengthening innovation muscles?

Recent research by Christensen, Brigham Young University Professor Jeffrey Dyer and INSEAD Professor Hal Gregersen concludes that successful innovators share a set of attributes. The good news is that anyone can bolster their "Innovator's DNA" by taking the right actions.

For example, organizations can help individuals develop their DNA by providing experiential learning opportunities such as "job swaps." In 2008, Procter & Gamble swapped employees with Google so employees could experience each other's culture and approach and bring the learning back to their respective organizations. Consider finding an organization that is noncompetitive, innovative and with which you would share a mutual benefit by swapping employees.

Also think about action-learning programs that can help groups of high-potential leaders get their feet wet in an innovation project by working on teams tasked with solving an important innovation problem for the organization, such as "Where should we develop a new growth business?"

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4. Do we reward innovation?

Companies can be two-faced about innovation. They can lecture about its importance while rewarding managers who focus exclusively on operations and punishing managers who dabble in new ventures. Innovation shouldn't be a career killer. It should be recognized and rewarded.

Financial rewards are only a piece of the puzzle. Some of the most important rewards relate to how innovation efforts affect a manager's career path, which makes HR involvement absolutely critical. Consider creating an annual innovation awards program that honors innovative efforts across the organization, or a rotational program where high-potential managers spend some portion of their time working on innovation efforts.

A Changing Role

Unfortunately, many companies don't consider the HR area to be a strategic function. But it should be, especially when it comes to innovation. Innovation is an intensely human process requiring different mind-sets and courses of action. If an organization is seeking to be more innovative, it is the actions of individuals, guided by a strategy, that will ultimately determine its success.

Since HR influences who the individuals are that take these actions through attracting, developing and retaining talent, who better to be in on strategic conversations around innovation?

Not that you need more things on your plate, but think seriously about what could be more important than enabling the organization to innovate and create new growth. Work with the senior team to formalize your role in helping to develop the organization's innovation capabilities. Set goals for the organization and for yourself and make yourself accountable for reaching them.

Enabling the organization to be more innovative is not an easy undertaking. However, thinking through the four questions above and positioning yourself as a critical part of the innovation effort is worth the effort.

Scott Anthony is president of Innosight, a consulting and executive training firm focused on innovation, and the author of The Silver Lining (Harvard Business Press, forthcoming). Tara Young is a principal at Innosight and leads the firm's training programs.

Anthony's new book, The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times,will be released shortly.

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