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HR's Role in Developing Innovative Organizations

Dr. David Weiss, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Publication date: February, 2020
HR’s Role in Developing Innovative Organizations

Being an innovative organization is far more than developing innovative products. It includes developing services, processes, business model innovation and even societal and policy innovations. Most innovation discoveries occur through convening diverse employees, teams, departments and organizations that combine perspectives, resulting in new ways of thinking and operating. Organizations need HR to drive innovation through the creation of leadership capacities, diverse team and organizational methodologies that allow innovation to flourish.

Here are five areas of focus for HR’s role in developing innovative organizations.

1. Building Leaders of Innovation
HR drives innovation by building ‘leaders of innovation’. Leaders of innovation do not necessarily generate the innovative ideas themselves. Instead, they recognize innovation when they see it and work with diverse groups to gain insight and discover innovative solutions to complex issues.  HR needs to hire individuals who are inherently capable of being leaders of innovation, promote them and develop that capability. They also need to build succession plans to ensure that future leaders can be leaders of innovation.

2. Ensuring Diverse Teams Can Work Together on Innovation
Innovative insights and discoveries emerge from diverse groups of employees, teams, departments, external customers and even diverse organizations that share their perspectives and combine them in unforeseen ways. Typically, organizations that have "silos" struggle to generate innovative outcomes. HR has a fundamental role to maximize inclusion, cross-functionality and the elimination of silos. For example, HR must ensure diverse teams convene and work together on innovation in order to drive innovation throughout the organization. HR should also extend the role of its HR business partners to ensure their internal clients receive and hand-off work to other departments effectively so that silos are reduced.

3. Focusing on User Experience and Iteration
Most issues that require innovative insights are characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty and often have little precedent. As a result, best practices and research are not very helpful for these issues.  An alternate method that has a higher probability to reveal insights into an issue and thereby yield much better innovative solutions is to analyze user experience. HR needs to champion user experience as an equally valid source of insights as best practices and research. However, insights gained from user experience can be imprecise and provide conflicting evidence. That’s why an innovation team will need to be effective at iteration. Iteration is the process of generating partial solutions that an innovation team can test on early adopt users to see if it generates any positive movement to resolve the issue. They then isolate the element in the partial solution that seems to work and expand and deepen it to produce another slightly better solution to test on users again. HR needs to promote iteration as a way to rapidly generate innovative solutions to complex, ambiguous and uncertain problems. They also need to debunk the myth that perfect solutions are possible and normalize partial and imprecise solutions designed to advance the discovery process.

4. Leveraging Change Management Practices to Implement Innovative Ideas
Innovation needs an implementation track record so that people will believe their efforts are meaningful and not a waste of time. Implementing new ideas also reinforces a culture conducive to innovation, which will help sustain the focus on innovation. HR should reframe its role in innovation as a ‘prequel to change’. Many HR leaders already focus on change management. By adding a focus on developing innovative organizations, HR extends its role earlier in the process to generating insights, ideation and iteration. HR should also ensure that leaders of innovation apply change management best practices so that employees and teams effectively and rapidly adopt innovative solutions that become the new business as usual.

5. Developing Organizational Practices That Drive Innovation
HR needs to develop practices and programs that drive innovation and do not make innovation harder to do. For example, HR needs to develop practices to help leaders to become leaders of innovation and programs to reward and reinforce diverse team collaboration.  HR should also review its current practices and programs to ensure they are not inadvertently making innovation more difficult. For example, HR should investigate if their job descriptions inadvertently create rigid job definitions that prohibit employees from working on diverse teams. They should also look at other parts of the organization and champion the removal or modification of various organizational practices that inadvertently make innovation more difficult. For example, if finance has a budgeting process that only allows innovative ideas to be implemented at the beginning of a budget cycle, then that will limit the willingness of employees to generate innovative solutions within the year. If parts of the organization require four or five signatures for approvals to proceed with innovative initiatives, then HR can champion the removal of those barriers because they slow down the implementation of ideas.

Overall, HR has a fundamental role in developing innovative organizations. HR should build leaders of innovation, create an openness to diverse thought, emphasize user experience and ensure that innovative ideas are implemented effectively. HR also needs to lead the way to remove or modify the organizational practices that are barriers to innovation and that make innovation more difficult.

 

About the Author

David Weiss

Dr. David S. Weiss, ICD.D is President and CEO of a firm specializing in innovation, leadership, and HR consulting for many Fortune 500, social enterprise and public-sector organizations. David has provided consulting on more than 1000 business and organizational projects, delivered over 200 conference presentations and he has written over 50 journal and trade articles. He is the author or co-author of seven books including Innovative Intelligence (Wiley) which was reported by CBC News as a “top 5 business book” in the year it was published. David has conducted executive sessions in Canada, USA, China, Russia, Israel, Uganda, South Africa, Malaysia, Chile, Hungary, France and England. David currently teaches at three university executive development programs, including Queen’s University, Schulich, and St. Mary’s University. David’s doctorate is from the University of Toronto and he has three Master’s degrees.

David is the lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Leadership Capability to Drive Innovation program.