90% of leaders say people and culture are the most important factors for driving innovation.

It’s not surprising really. When we look to an innovation culture to create solutions, which in turn will lead to exceptional customer experiences, or game-changing business transformations it is our employees who will lead the way through collaboration and insight. 

But although CEOs and leadership teams may accept the importance of people and culture, when it comes to cultural transformations it can be all too easy for people to be sidelined in the drive towards creating new strategies, new values and new processes. The typical focus on top-line growth, NPD (new product development) or gaining a bigger share of an existing market means the quest to drive organisations forward even through innovation is typically narrow and focused on short-term return. At The Future Shapers, we believe that one of the key reasons why culture change initiatives fail is that the people dimension is almost seen as an afterthought with HR teams ignored and left to carry on with business as usual whilst leadership teams try to impose seismic and blanket changes on working practices and attitudes.

This is particularly true when it comes to building an innovation-led culture. To step up to a culture of innovation requires such a fundamental change of thinking that employees and leaders have to be led towards it, helped to engage with it and ultimately to embrace it as a working practice. 

Out go silos and in comes collaboration; out go strict hierarchies and in comes flatter, more free-wheeling structures; out goes the fear of failure and in comes the acceptance that failure is an important learning experience and a fundamental part of the innovation process. Most importantly, out goes the idea of people as things (resources) and in comes respect allied to a desire to create exceptional experiences for employees and customers alike.

Any move towards a change of culture can prove difficult for employees to assimilate. Man is by nature a lover of stability and whenever we ask people to adopt new values, new beliefs and new attitudes there will always be an element of resistance. But if even small cultural changes can be hard to instil, how much resistance and inertia will leaders have to overcome when they look to adopt an innovation culture? Particularly when we look to sweep away job demarcation, silos, fixed processes and strict hierarchy and replace them with flatter structures, open collaboration and a fresh outlook on every process. 

For us, this is where HR comes into its own. By their very nature HR professionals are extremely skilled at, in fact, are the experts at dealing with people. And it is those self-same people skills which make the difference between success and failure when CEOs and leadership teams look to transform the organisational culture in pursuit of game-changing innovation capability.

For a start, when we look to collaborate, to take ownership, to create agile solutions, then pay scales, bonuses, targets, how we view metrics, procedures, manuals and so on may all need to be revised. But far more than that, it is the people skills, which HR teams can bring to the fore, which will make the difference. Through training, through workshops, through setting an example, HR teams can help to transform attitudes, expectations, behaviour and ultimately culture.

Whether helping leadership teams develop the skills which they need to support creativity and innovation or bringing an innovation focus to talent planning, selection and development; the sooner that HR teams are brought into the innovation culture change mix, the greater the chance of success.

In fact, as a crf research paper said in 2013, “there are so many areas where HR can help create a culture that supports creativity and innovation, whether as a leader or a strong advisor. The question is, why aren’t most of us doing more?”

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