The Paradox of Workplace Innovation for HR

With Innovation and Disruption becoming the popular words of the day for the last few years, the importance of fostering an innovative workplace culture is already well documented.  Regardless of how market leading a product or service is today, it won’t be for much longer without a team of people making good decisions and taking the appropriate actions.

So what is an innovative culture, and how does one go about fostering it in a way that actually leads to something?  Let's explore...

What is this innovation thing anyway?

Let’s firstly address this elephant in the sandbox by answering a few (not-so) simple questions:

  • Is Innovation a noun or a verb?   Is it something that you do, or the outcome of what you do? I guess it is probably both.
  • Is it about quantity?  If I choose to eat ice-cream all-day simply because I can, but it doesn’t really serve a purpose, is that a good thing?  In other words, does investing in innovation for the sake of innovation make a company innovative?  I guess it depends on their objectives? 
  • Is it about quality?  If the Janitorial division of a Company discovered a way to drastically improve what it does and therefore reduce costs significantly, is this company innovative?   Would they consider themselves innovative?
  • Is it about learning from mistakes?  It is difficult to do anything new without making mistakes along the way.  Can we judge a company’s innovation culture by the number of mistakes it makes and owns up to? 

From where I sit, it is probably up to each Company to decide what innovation means to them.

What is it that truly supports workplace innovation? 

After spending an incredible amount of time invested in the topic, it is clear to me that there is no single factor, but a group of factors that are important.  But if forced to choose, I would probably err on the side of these:

  1. Knowing your customers - who else would an innovation ultimately benefit?
  2. Being able to properly identify and define an opportunity - afterall not all ideas are great ideas.
  3. Having the capability to do something about it.

It is arguable that the foundation of these things could be described as flexibility, agility or nimble-ness.  Otherwise everything might simply stay the same.

The paradox of workplace innovation

Can you spot the paradox?  In order to be innovative, agility and flexibility are required.  But hang on, what about goals, KPI's, and plans?  Isn't agility and flexibility the enemy of board-approved plans?  I can't remember the last time a Board member or Investor was happy to hear about too much flexibility being built into the process.  The plan is the plan.  If you fail to plan, you plan to fail?  A goal without a plan is just hope.  Your job is to deliver to the agreed plans!  

Thanks to this paradox, HR is in the hotseat.  Does this sound familiar...

The goals for the year are now set, KPI's are set, and we must achieve them.  Also everyone should remember our core values which are RESPECT, FUN, ACHIEVEMENT, and INNOVATION. Furthermore, everyone must achieve the Goals whilst living and breathing these core values.  HR, you are the custodian of these core values.

As suggestions start coming in to improve things, responses start to include phrases like 'it is not in the budget', and 'just stick to the plan, that is how we get our bonuses'.

'Um...but...aren't we a Company that values Innovation?'

You get the point.

Maybe we can all learn something from Goldilocks (again)

A car is manufactured these days with both rigid strength AND the ability to crumple in an accident in order to (ironically) protect those inside.  Shock absorbers and tyres are also designed with both durability and comfort in mind.  Welcome to the modern-day HR professional's challenge.

There needs to be enough strength in the overall system that prevents it from falling apart, but not so much rigidity that it shakes apart anyway when going over the inevitable bumps in the road.

What an exciting challenge!  What this means however is that each Company's senior leadership team needs to consciously decide what is too hot, and what is too cold, and what is just right.  Consistency is important, because a misalignment here will inevitably show itself somewhere.  This is where it becomes super-important to create your own unique measurement drumbeat.  Measure the things that are important to the company, often enough to know they are happening but not so often it becomes annoying, and make sure they are in the 'just right' range.  These things will be slightly different for every Company.

If you are looking for a way to easily measure the things that really matter to your company, check out Employee Life.  It was purposefully built for that purpose.


About the author:


Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc).