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Lucy Adams

Disruptive HR


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Four ways for HR to become a force for innovation


HR is increasingly being challenged to help with generating greater innovation. Our responses typically have been to tackle the usual suspects. We invest in innovation training. We include “the ability to innovate” in our leadership promotion criteria. We adapt our psychometric assessments to try and spot the innovators. Unfortunately, these interventions rarely create truly innovative environments. Indeed, I’d like to suggest that much of what we do in HR, results in crushing the conditions for innovation rather than creating them.

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.

I’d like to offer four suggestions for setting up HR as a force for innovation; 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.

Innovation can often, wrongly, be seen as something that comes from the centre.

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.

Freedom within a framework

We need to revisit the way in which we develop our employment policies that currently document what’s allowed and what’s not in minute detail to “freedom within a framework” to create greater autonomy and trust. We could encourage front-line employees to challenge what gets in the way of meeting the customer need as TD Bank did when it promised to pay any employee who could ‘kill a stupid bank rule’ that just got in the way of their customer service.

We could adopt the Adobe ‘Kickbox’ approach where front-line employees can apply and receive a box full of tools to help them take their innovative idea to implementation – including a prepaid $1,000 credit card – no questions asked. Adobe realised that often the biggest barrier to innovation was the line manager so wanted to place the power to innovate – and some investment – directly in the hands of their employees.

HR processes that embolden the individual

Our onboarding should change from being designed to achieve conformity to a period of time that is about understanding each new employee’s unique contribution. We need to get rid of leadership competency frameworks that promote the idea that leaders must be good at everything and instead focus on identifying leaders who can create the conditions where each of their team can play to their strengths.

Our succession planning could change too, to include employees’ suggestions of who they’d want to lead them – resulting in leaders who are different to the ones we identify top down. We should consider how our reward practices encourage our people to experiment and risk failure rather than doing more of the same and hitting targest. Here’s a great article by Jacob Morgan on how companies such as P&G and Tata have been experimenting with “failure rewards,” recognising that feeling safe to fail is critical for an innovation culture.

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.

Our succession planning could change too, to include employees’ suggestions of who they’d want to lead them.

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.

Our rigid adherence to the org chart means that we are less able to recognise innovation potential and definitely less able to support it. Marcus Buckingham has highlighted the problem in his In The Real World blog series, but I’ve yet to see many examples of how HR can adapt to this.

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.

Our rigid adherence to the org chart means that we are less able to recognise innovation potential and definitely less able to support it.

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.

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