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John Brooker

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Seven innovation metaphors for HR professionals

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Here are seven metaphors and tips to help an HR professional drive innovative behaviour.  

1. Lift the veil – why does your organisation want to innovate?

If your top management team plans to launch an innovation initiative, have them answer three questions first:

1. What value will it bring in business terms?

Will it drive more revenue, save costs, differentiate you from the competition, or improve staff retention? How will you quantify this in business terms?

2. What will be the signs of progress?

Recently, I reviewed for a government organisation a list of proposed measures to show innovation progress. Primarily they were input measures, (e.g. number of people trained, number of innovation champions appointed). Input measures often show you have built an innovation bureaucracy, not that you are more innovative. Ensure there are output measures too, e.g. the number of propositions implemented and achievement of business value.

3. What will tell you this initiative is sustainable?

You can create a one-off innovative proposition fairly easily. How to recognise your organisation is sustainably innovative? Clues might be, e.g. you identify opportunities regularly, create propositions frequently and kill poor propositions quickly for good reason.

HR tip: Ensure your leadership team thinks through these questions before you start an initiative.

2. Focus the lens – what type of innovation does your organisation require?

Recently, a colleague and I visited a potential client to discuss how they might be more innovative. A review of their operational areas revealed it is a very innovative organisation. However, they innovate primarily at the operational level; they excel at finding innovative ways to improve the operation, to make it cheaper, faster, enhance service etc. (Some people call this “incremental” innovation).

On probing further, they revealed that business has become tougher because competitors also innovate operationally; operational innovation has diminishing returns in their industry.  They need to innovate more strategically, to create new business or market opportunities, (some people call this “breakthrough” innovation).

Ideally the client would like to create a “disruptive” innovation, a process, product or service that transforms their industry (think mobile phones, direct insurance and iTunes). However, disruptive innovation can be a challenge for organisations unless they form separate entities; often, entrepreneurs drive disruptive innovation because they have no legacy business or systems to hold them back.

So, what type of innovation does your organisation seek? Be clear too. Do your colleagues want “front end” innovation, to find opportunities and create propositions to exploit them, or “back end” innovation, the system to implement those propositions?

HR tip: Ensure you and your colleagues know what type of innovation you are seeking.

3. It takes a lot of energy and resources to boil the ocean

Major innovation initiatives, like other change programmes, create resistance. They use money and resources that other people want and planning takes a long time. This increases their risk and it is difficult to convince stakeholders to support them when you have no innovative propositions to demonstrate effectiveness. Instead, run a small initiative; form a team, run a workshop to create an innovative proposition, sell that proposition and implement it. When it is successful, repeat it and build an evidence base to obtain resources for larger initiatives.

HR tip: Ensure initiatives produce a tangible proposition quickly.

4.  Plant seeds in rainforests not deserts

A first step for organisations is often to start idea schemes. These can be highly successful if set up right. Too often though they fail to produce innovative propositions because the organisation is not set up to process or implement them, e.g. there are too few people to manage the scheme, delays occur, managers reject good ideas that don’t fit with their goals, or worse, give them awards but do not implement them. When the seeds of ideas fall in an innovation desert, people become cynical, demotivated and cactus like, they might seek more fertile places to work.

Create a rainforest climate; resource schemes properly, set clear criteria for ideas wanted, ensure people that submit ideas know how to evaluate them as well as generate them and have teams, not individuals, review ideas. If you can’t do this, take the approach outlined in point 3 above.    

HR tip: Spend resources on idea schemes only if the climate is right.

5. Learn the script as you make the film

To innovate regularly you need a structured method, a staged approach, somewhat like the film industry needs script to make films. In a film, actors learn the script before a scene or number of scenes; they don’t learn the whole script. Equally, people do not need to learn a structured method to innovate before they create a proposition. If you use a skilled person to facilitate a workshop on a real opportunity, people learn the method as they create and you receive a fast return on your investment. In one project, we worked with seven companies in just this way and all produced a marketable proposition.

HR tip: Have people innovate to learn, don’t learn to innovate.

6. A well-balanced dish needs a variety of ingredients

Too many propositions falter when teams start to implement them. A key reason is that people who have not explored the opportunity, contributed to the solution and shaped the implementation strategy resist the proposition. If leaders involve people from across the organisation, including staff functions, in the team, they are more likely to:

In one workshop we ran, the Finance Director contributed the key piece of information that led to a highly valuable proposition.

HR tip: Encourage your colleagues to involve a wide range of departments when exploiting opportunities

7. Use a guillotine to stop the innovation conversation

In Parliament they use the metaphorical “guillotine” to bring protracted debates to a close. If people talk too much about innovation and don’t actually innovate, perhaps your organisation should employ it too.

HR tip: Stop people discussing innovation. Innovate.

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John Brooker

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