Unlocking Innovation at Your Organization
How HR practitioners can cultivate a culture of innovation.
By Kathryn Tyler
Innovation can be a nebulous goal, yet it is crucial for business success.
“If you’re not innovating, you’re stagnating,” says Ria Glenn DeMay, J.D., labor relations manager for the University of Maine System in Hallowell, Maine.
Unlocking innovation represents a powerful opportunity for HR to contribute to and even drive an organization’s competitiveness, says Bill Thomas, SHRM-SCP, managing principal of Centric Performance LLC, an organizational strategy consultancy in Pittsburgh
Generating and executing fresh ideas is also a factor affecting an organization’s long-term survival, says Jack Phillips, co-author of The Value of Innovation (Wiley-Scrivener, 2018). He notes that in 1935, the expected life span of a company was 95 years; by 2005, that average had fallen to 15 years. So how do companies that have lasted for more than a century, such as 3M and Johnson & Johnson, continue to thrive? They innovate.
It should come as no surprise, then, that innovation is one of the top issues on senior executives’ minds. “If HR is to align with senior leadership, innovation needs to be one of HR’s concerns,” says Michael Mitchell, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. According to the center’s 2016 study of 500 executives, 95 percent said innovation is important but only 14 percent said their organizations are doing it effectively.
An environment that supports creativity can also raise employee engagement. “If you work for an organization that squashes new ideas and thinking, it isn’t engaging,” Mitchell says.
HR professionals play a critical role in creating a culture of innovation. Here are steps you can take to help your organization ignite ingenuity.
Understand the Process
“There’s a misunderstanding that innovation is all about coming up with ideas,” says Michael Stanleigh, CEO of Business Improvement Architects, a global management consulting firm headquartered in Toronto. “Innovation is a process, and brainstorming is just the first step.”
Ensure that executives have realistic expectations about what innovation might deliver. Above all, leaders must be patient. “New ideas don’t always reveal their value at the very beginning,” Mitchell says. “They have to grow and prove themselves.”
Before employees can be expected to contribute to the innovation process, they must understand what innovation means in the context of the company and why it matters. In explaining expectations to employees, be clear about parameters. Are leaders looking for radical new products or to fine-tune efficiencies? HR can set quantitative goals and devote appropriate resources toward achieving them.
Walk the Talk
HR can’t expect to foster an innovative company culture if it does not have an innovative culture within its own function. “Lead by example,” advises Parker C. McKenna, SHRM-SCP, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Disciplines Special Expertise Panel. “For example, HR should welcome feedback from customers and involve stakeholders in developing new HR strategies to meet business needs.”
HR staff at the University of Maine System meet quarterly to brainstorm and discuss ideas, DeMay says. “Create your own think tank. Have regular times, monthly or quarterly, where you brainstorm. Get out the whiteboard and think about what issues are affecting employees,” she recommends.
At BetterUp, a mobile-platform coaching company in San Francisco, the leader of one fast-growing team needed to figure out how to help new team members contribute more quickly after onboarding. He partnered with HR to develop a custom coaching program, says Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, the company’s chief innovation office
While specific job skills can always be taught, soft skills that are associated with creativity can be harder to find, says Danna Hewick, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at USSI, a janitorial company in Bethesda, Md. “Instead of focusing solely on experience and hard skills, focus on the soft skills—innovation, collaboration and change management—needed to bring innovation to life.”
To discover candidates with the requisite skills, rethink interview questions. “Ask candidates whether they’ve ever come up with a great idea and what happened with it,” Stanleigh recommends.
“Making the ‘safe hire’ kills a lot of innovation,” says Braden Kelley, author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire (Wiley, 2010). “If a person matches 100 percent of the job description and has done this job a thousand times, what will he bring that is new? Obviously, hiring someone who doesn’t fit your culture is a waste of time and money, but which culture are you trying to fit? The culture you have or the culture you’re trying to become?”
Adedicated area that moves people out of their day-to-day work environment, disrupts their thinking and encourages face-to-face interaction can be vital to sparking innovation.
What should be available in the room? “Comfortable workspaces with couches, tables and lots of pods where people can gather in small groups, as well as resources that will help people capture ideas, like smartboards, whiteboards and tools to help people depict their ideas,” McKenna says.
Kellerman’s company created a library stocked with books that have been critical in shaping the organization’s intellectual roots. “We track what employees have read on a companywide chart and reward people for reading,” she says.
Carve Out Time
Intentionally block time on the calendar to learn something new and then use that knowledge to tackle a problem, McKenna advises.
At BetterUp, the HR team instituted “no-meeting Fridays” to build in periods of time that are conducive to creative flow. “Flow is a cognitive state of immersion that enables deep thinking and creativity that’s not possible in five-minute increments between meetings,” Kellerman explains. “We also designate ‘inner work’ days, during which the office closes and employees are asked to refrain from ‘outer work’ like e-mails and calls and instead focus on reflective practices like reading, walking and mindfulness.”
Provide training to managers and executives around topics such as creativity, how to be a better listener and the overall process of being innovative, says Robert Farmer, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of people solutions at the Missoula Federal Credit Union in Missoula, Mont.
While leaders at most companies are traditionally taught to minimize risk, “to be an innovative leader, you have to be open to risk and ambiguity,” Mitchell says.
Stanleigh recommends walking managers through hands-on exercises. “Ask thought-provoking questions so they start to come up with ideas so that by the time they finish the training, they have some innovations they can explore,” he says.
BetterUp offers “experimentation office hours” to help staff members at various skill levels try on new roles. For example, the company’s data analytics team makes itself available to teach others how to design business experiments. Also, the research team offers anyone in the company the opportunity to help design research studies and to learn about research in the process. “We also offer all employees ongoing one-on-one coaching to build innovation-fostering skills like focus, trust and risk tolerance,” Kellerman says.
Empower the Front Line
“Many of the brightest and most useful ideas come from the lowest levels of the organization—people who deal daily with customers, suppliers, products and services,” Thomas says. An example of this concept can be found in Whirlpool’s mantra: “Innovation comes from everyone, everywhere.”
For an organization to take advantage of this, senior employees need to be open-minded toward their junior counterparts. “Sometimes senior leaders tend to silence the ideas of less experienced employees,” DeMay says. She maintains it’s better to avoid dismissing anyone’s ideas and to allow open dialogue. “Ideas that may not look feasible at first might become feasible with a little creativity,” she says.
Thomas warns about exerting too much control. “If there are too many levels of approval or too much time between an idea and implementation, it discourages idea creation,” he says.
To solicit input from front-line employees, McKenna recommends resurrecting the old-school suggestion box and bringing it up-to-date using technology. “Digital suggestion boxes encourage those closest to the work to submit ideas for improving it,” he says
Design Expansive Work Assignments
Innovation requires collaboration across many different areas in the company, but, unfortunately, a lot of companies have a siloed approach to talent. To encourage people to work across boundaries, Kelley recommends offering job rotations and internal internships, as well as “innovation vacations,” when employees can schedule time away from their usual jobs to pursue new ideas.
Share Creative Stories
Stories are an important part of an organization’s institutional memory. The narratives that employees tell and retell are ones that convey core elements of the company’s identity. Be intentional about which stories HR chooses to tell in case studies, training sessions and newsletters. “Organizations where the most-talked-about stories revolve around creativity inspire others to follow suit, building a culture of innovation,” Stanleigh says.
And don’t be afraid to tell stories about failures, either—but reframe those tales as learning opportunities. “Innovative cultures and leaders understand the role failure plays in the innovation process,” Thomas says.
Tie Innovation Efforts to Performace Reviews
It is natural for employees to focus their time on the activities on which they are evaluated. So if organizations want workers to spend time on innovation, they should measure employees’ effectiveness toward that goal. Evaluate the extent to which an employee thinks creatively, accepts new ways of doing things and adapts to change, McKenna advises.
“Change can come from anywhere,” Mitchell says, “and organizations need to be ready to respond.”