How HR Can Drive An Innovation Culture

Human Resources are essential for effective innovation


HR is frequently looked at as a bit of a fluffy part of businesses, the one that deals with employee, recruitment, and training, but only has a limited impact on the way that people work on a day-to-day basis. However, given their remit, HR has the potential play a bigger role in innovation programs within a company than any other department.

Innovation isn't simply about finding people who can have great ideas, it is also about creating an environment in which these ideas can flourish. If people don't feel safe, valued, or listened to, they are unlikely to put in the kind of effort needed to push through new ideas. So what exactly should HR be doing to drive a culture of innovation?

Listen To Concerns

This may seem like an obvious point, after all a primary function of any HR department is to listen to and solve the concerns that their employees have, but when it comes to promoting innovation, this needs to be front and centre.

Unfortunately, unhappy people do not want to share their ideas. If they feel like their job is unsafe they aren't going to help a company that they may not be a part of in a few months time. If they have issues with senior management, they will not want to give them a potential win to celebrate so are likely to not hand over their ideas. If they feel like there is no chance for growth within the company, they are likely to either take their innovative ideas where there is or even just strike out on their own.

This is why HR plays such a key role, because innovation needs to come from people who trust their company and want to help it, HR need to be ahead of this in order to make sure that every employee is treated with respect and buys into the company's ideas. When there is a workforce which has bought into the ideas that the company espouses, it not only helps to increase the number and quality of ideas at the time, but also in the future, as these employees move up through the company and become innovative leaders.

Cultivate A Culture Of Acceptance

One of the most important elements of a truly innovative company is that they accept failure.

This is essential for a number of reasons. Key amongst them is that the majority of ideas come to nothing or fail - if people are scared to come forward with ideas in case they fail though, nobody will come forward with ideas.

HR therefore need to be the driving force behind creating a culture where the failure of new ideas isn't punished, but embraced. However, this is a difficult maze to navigate because ultimately managers and directors have targets to hit and a failure will undoubtedly damage their chances of hitting those targets. HR need to make sure they are pushing the long-term narrative to promote a culture where quarterly targets are not the be-all and end-all, but instead push thinking out to look at the medium and long-term impacts. If a promising idea fails, it, arguably, provides more value than if an idea is a monumental success as there isn't the same level of dissection and soul searching when an idea works well. However, if managers punish that failure despite the hard work that went into it, the follow up idea that could be worth millions will never surface.

Companies don't automatically promote a culture of innovation, there needs to be an openness where leaders can be challenged, where every failure isn't a fireable offence, and where ideas can be openly communicated. Managers too often resist this as they see it as a challenge and threat to their authority. HR need to act as the catalyst for this kind of open culture, as if it doesn't exist, neither does effective innovation.

Reward Ideas

The issue that many innovation departments today have is that although initial ideas are great, developing this idea and putting out to be enacted is seldom rewarded. For instance, if somebody comes up with a new product idea, but the manufacturing or sales process fails, the good idea will not be rewarded, so if there is a smaller chance of reward, people will be reticent to come forward with new ideas.

However, there also needs to be some kind of system that doesn't just push the narrative that as soon as you have an idea you get a bonus. Instead, HR must create a reward system that works for their company. Trying to establish this is not an easy thing to do given that there needs to some kind of 'blame' placed on another team if a good idea fails and rewards need to be across multiple different groups if it's successful.

There have also been several studies that show how financial rewards can actually de-motivate people if they are used as the primary motivational method. A meta-analysis of a number of experiments looking at this conducted by Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard M. Ryan found that 'for every standard deviation increase in reward, intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks decreases by about 25%.' People generally find coming up with innovative new ideas interesting, so ironically, through giving them too much reward or rewarding them too often for good ideas, they are less likely to come up with innovative ideas.

HR need to make sure there is a balance between rewarding good work and over-rewarding and damaging productivity, something which is considerably easier said than done.

Promote Collaboration

Innovation does not happen in a bubble, as the proverb goes. It takes a village to raise a child, and the same goes for an innovative idea. Take the iPhone, which many credit Steve Jobs for. The single most important element on it is the use of apps which give it the ability to do almost anything you think of, but apps were not something that Steve Jobs wanted. According to Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs authorized biography - 'He didn't want outsiders to create applications for the iPhone that could mess it up, infect it with viruses, or pollute its integrity.' There is no question that Steve Jobs was a revolutionary innovator, but even he needed to have a collaborative effort to get the most important feature onto his life's most important innovation.

Zoë MacLeod, director at the Centre for Coaching and Workplace Innovation at Royal Roads University said in an interview with HR Voice, 'HR departments across the globe need to focus on more flexible work environments, fostering open and collaborative cultures, and helping the organization to cultivate creative intelligence.' This is not simply about making sure people can communicate their ideas to the right people, it is as much about creating the right environments in which people are most likely to come up with their most creative ideas. This could be allowing people to work from home, work in shared spaces, or even take some time away from their computers and emails to clear their heads. 

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