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John Acton

DPI Europe

Managing Partner

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How to harness the power of critical thinking


While most business leaders are willing to acknowledge publicly that their staff are their most important asset and resource, as we know in practice it’s often something they pay lip service to, preferring instead the comfort of the boardroom, the bottom line and dealing with shareholders.

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made and certainly there have been enormous improvements in a relatively short space of time in diversity, pay, flexible working and employees rights etc. However, not enough credit has been given to the people who work at the true coalface of staff interaction, the HR team.

In many businesses HR is seen as an operational unit to deliver the basic HR requirements and compliance.

It is rarely seen as strategic or as the cornerstone to drive change or significantly contribute to growth. The HR profession as a whole has long deserved greater acknowledgement of the role it plays in business, especially in the evolution of a company and the key part HR plays in its success.

Underestimating the impact and influence HR potentially has on an organisation is a huge mistake.

It is widely accepted that nobody knows your business and marketplace better than your people.

This is probably why many businesses offer incentive schemes for employees to come up with good ideas. Tapping into what they think, feel and believe to trigger some quality critical thinking is key. However, very few businesses go further and actually provide platforms or frameworks for their people to truly flourish.

HR Directors are in a great position to change all this.

As a CIPD roundtable discussion on Tomorrow’s Company recently concluded, “HR is being a critical advisor with special skills and know how and is the first line of support to the CEO in helping to transform the company.”

Out-thinking the competition is critical and at the heart of this is Innovation.

HR is uniquely placed to harness people and to help drive innovation in any organisation. In our experience Innovation impacts three areas of an organisation. The first everybody gets – is Your Proposition, ie what the customer is buying. This is where most effort is focussed.

The second however is often overlooked, it’s Process ie everything “behind the line” that delivers your proposition. Finally, innovation can impact Engagement, how you engage with all stakeholders internally as well as externally.

In our experience there are two optimum ways of approaching Innovation. Both place HR and your people at the epicentre. Essentially gather a cross-functional team or teams of your people and place them in an environment suitable for focussed thinking.

Then decide whether you want them to approach your company’s challenges from the “inside out” or the “outside in”?

Firstly, from the “inside out”.

Use a series of frameworks to structure the thinking and explore wider and deeper than ever before how your organisation can improve its proposition, process and engagement. Frameworks such as Touchpoint analysis, Future 360, 10 Search Areas and Future Business Arena can all help deliver better quality output and considerably reduce wasted effort.

If you don’t use the right frameworks it’s a bit like sending your people onto a large stone beach, where every stone is an idea or opportunity. In reality, very few are worth pursuing. Having the right frameworks in place, properly facilitated, results in going straight to the “golden” stones, yielding the best results.

We recently worked with a client, that during the Future 360 workshop identified that the airline industry had similar dynamics to its own. They had people, vehicles, depots and destinations. So, they explored what technology the best-in-class airlines were deploying and how they were engaging with passengers. In a few weeks time, they’ll be launching an App that will change the rules of the game being played in their industry.

The other approach is to come at innovation from the “outside in” ie look at the challenge as a disruptor would.

Ignore the shackles of current thinking, behaviour, norms and practices. All bets are off, so to speak. A great example of this is a pharmaceutical company circa £100m turnover. They had recently identified a team of high potential people representing all the key functions across the organisation.

They wanted to provide them with a challenging assignment, but it had to be business-related. We put the group through our Disruption Business Game – Stealth Threat. Essentially the team worked together exploring 13 key business areas over two intensive days with the brief to design a new Stealth Competitor to destroy their own company.

The results were astonishing as the employees came up with a strategy to buy land, build a plant in the nearby enterprise zone, saving large sums of money, head hunt the (real) company’s key employees (four key people on one month notice) and destroy the company within 18 months.

On seeing the results the German parent company chief executives immediately visited the old plant and signed off investment for a new one. The rest is history…

For those of you who are Game of Thrones fans, many of us would like one of Daenerys’ dragons to help us fight the opposition, but in these uncertain times it’s especially innovation which is the lifeblood of any organisation. Whether it’s through a disruption lens or an innovation lens the results can and should be transformational.

Nobody understands your organisation better than you and your people. HR Directors are perfectly placed to harness this talent pool of creative people, get them to do some serious critical thinking to change the game forever.

Finally, the approaches described above are skill building: once learned never forgotten. I’m passionate about helping businesses and their people be the best they can be. The crusade continues……

Contact details –
[email protected]

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John Acton

Managing Partner

Read more from John Acton

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