What Is HR Innovation? Beyond the Buzzword

By Chris Havrilla

Everyone is buzzing about “HR innovation” as the next big key to success. Innovation is simply the introduction of something new. But like most “simple” things we have managed to make it as complicated and cloudy as possible, thus making it the perfect catchall terminology to sound like something big, bold, and game-changing has happened (but that few know how to confirm or deny). And this my friends, is how buzzwords are born. And I bet you thought it was the storks, I mean consultants. 😉

Per Wikipedia, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. I like that but let me also introduce you to the concepts of horizons of innovation which give some context to the levels of problem solving — that increase according to the time spent and value derived from the change. I will also cite the approach that is most often used with each horizon. Then we can talk about how this relates and can be applied to HR.

Horizons of Innovation

  • Horizon 1: Performance Improvement (Approach: Lean) focuses on reducing variance by driving out waste and inefficiency in transactions (common to use the 5S’s with this approach)
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  • Horizon 2: Process Redesign (Approach: Six Sigma) provides incremental improvement of current process and practices (common to use DMAIC with this approach)
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  • Horizon 3: Innovation (Approach: Design Thinking) focuses on meeting customer needs by creating breakthrough approaches, behaviors, and capabilities (common to use EDIPT)
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I think it is important to note that using structured methods (e.g. Lean, Six Sigma, Design Thinking) for these types of change are important to keep teams focused on the task and outcomes at hand. To understand what you are trying to accomplish and the path to get there. When I talk about innovation, I am always talking about Horizon 3 – which is why you will hear me use terms like breakthroughs and transformation when I am talking about innovation and the work that I do. I personally use a combination of design thinking and agile to achieve the kind of breakthroughs and transformation that I consider to be HR innovation – as I find it also helps move things forward, focused, and DONE. Think Big. Start Small. Act Fast.

This combination of core, innovation skills is critical for leaders in the HR/Talent space to learn and employ, especially with the exponentially increasing demands, forces, and disruptions we, as well as the organizations and people we serve, are facing. The skills, structure, and process of innovation may seem counter-intuitive and “outside the box” – but you need that to force people out of their comfort zone, to allow them to break free of the lines and boxes that comfort or bind them. You have to escape from the incremental change (notice I didn’t say improvement) of which so many have become apathetically accustom!

When to Innovate

One of the most common failures of Horizons 1 and 2 are that they are used on Horizon 3 problems. When do you use Horizon 3? Simple – there are three scenarios where innovation is necessary:

  • New opportunities (e.g. hiring a new job type from a new population)
  • Outside innovations are being brought in (e.g. intelligent software to automate or augment transactional work)
  • Intractable problems (e.g. technology and talent woes brought on by bad enterprise software implementations, or problems that arise from Lean or Six Sigma projects gone awry)

W.E. Deming said it best: “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” So your current Lean or Six Sigma methods provide the wrong tools and process, and structure for innovation, or the disciplined approaches of making things simple, clear, real, happen, and stick. Trust me, I tried safer approaches and shortcuts along the way too — especially when I THOUGHT I had no choice. But you always have a choice – if you don’t, you are doing it wrong, so get help. There is no Easy Button, no Silver Bullet. Innovation is not easy and not proven – thus the terms “innovation,” “breakthrough,” “transformation,” etc. If it’s easy, you aren’t innovating – or you’re lucky and everyone will catch up in a minute and that edge will be gone before you know it.

The HR function is at serious risk of becoming purely transactional and irrelevant because business leaders are not seeing value, or the value proposition, evolving – especially for what they are paying. Look around – VP roles are often being replaced as Directors, and departments are being consolidated (ex. talent acquisition and talent management), moved under more transactional functions or departments. At its heart, innovation puts our customers and their experiences front and center. Smart HR and talent professionals can develop/hone soft and hard skills such as listening (with ears and eyes), empathy, relationship development, resourcefulness, design thinking, agile, data analysis, etc. to make HR the strategic, problem-solving, human-centric function it should be. Going forward, prepare to be in a constant state of curiosity and learning, upskilling, innovating, and adding value, to help transform how we work and how work is done.

Stay tuned for part two – Do You Have an Innovative HR Culture? What If You Don’t?