Innovation: An HR strategic lever

Innovation: An HR strategic lever


By Dave Crisp –

We know innovation grows from establishing a culture of engagement and growth for staff that offers challenge coupled with support. Targeting innovation as a business-related objective for human resources is an obvious strategic move beneficial for both the organization and HR.

Within HR itself there are plenty of opportunities to leverage novel approaches as well, so HR comes to be seen as a model in the lead in actually innovating. One former boss made his reputation within the company just this way and ended up in senior leadership in his mid-30s before ascending to a COO role in a major division and leaving the opening for me.

Among his innovations at the time was a recruiting drive that netted numerous hard-to-find programmers by the simple means of running an open house in the IT department. Potential candidates could tour and meet their prospective bosses and team mates. Today this would be considered minor — but a couple of decades ago it was fairly revolutionary, especially in Canada, though not unheard of to the south.

Having ridden that gambit to leverage a promotion to head office territory, the next talked about innovation was even simpler. At a time of a huge retail sales staff shortage, he decided to advertise on the back of bus and subway transfers, with a sort of mini-application to be dropped at your nearest store. What a drawing card for bored commuters looking for a change of work scenery.

There were others in his time with the organization, but it doesn’t take too many touches like these to mark someone for career moves. I was always impressed by seeing a few textbooks in his office on a new subject from which he simply absorbed and embellished ideas. What a revelation — a senior executive who hit the books to find something new and different to use for reputation-building. Here I was just reading stuff to solve immediate problems.

HR consultants could be more innovative, too, and some are — though lots seem to try only for a slightly better version of another applicant-tracking system or another course in basic skills. One that struck me as truly new is a pair with a novel program they’re offering to companies, particularly in the oil and mining regions of Alberta and British Columbia, where recruits are scarce and many new hires jump to the next company for a couple bucks more.

The constant job hopping and turnover has been a devastating challenge throughout those economic areas for years, so any new approach with this sort of promise of lowering turnover is big news.

The creative insight here is that this endless career disruption isn’t very strategic for the workers either, since they don’t develop careers at all — just a series of “same again” basic jobs and they don’t invest the time or save the money that would set them up for life.

What a great idea to help them see it and thereby help companies hang onto them. It’s just such insights that distinguish truly better solutions to long-standing problems that make us ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

It’s nice to note as well that something can be targeted as great for employees and also benefit the company. We know it should be so, but how many programs are primarily designed for company needs first?

The fact is we can think up these things. Necessity is the mother of invention but, even more than requiring someone to come at the problem from a new viewpoint, it takes someone who isn’t just hand-wringing about the severity of the problem. Rather, it takes someone who resolves to try new approaches.

The world progresses because quite a few people actually do try and some stick to it long enough to hone methods that work better, which everyone eventually copies. The key word is eventually. By then the innovator has had more ideas and worked out more bugs.

The good news is, just as when innovating within companies, those who generate such ideas are often best and first at implementing them. Others may try but often lack the insight to make them fully workable. Even the persistent problem of “someone stole credit for my idea” really isn’t the problem it’s often made out to be.

Mostly, people around the organization have a pretty clear idea who the innovators are because they do it over and over. It’s a set of habits built into a skill like any other. It takes time and practice to develop a pattern of thinking up great ideas. Not all work, so it takes time to sort out which do. But that requirement usually means others can’t get ahead of you even by copying, unless you stop innovating and let things slide.

The even bigger help is, if you’re an executive or team leader, showing the example brings out the best in your team members who likewise learn to try their ideas. The accumulation begins to be really significant if you keep this going over time. That’s the key power of engagement revealed in its underlying operating strategy – innovation all the time.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

Subscribe for the best of HR Management by email:
Subscribe for Email Updates

No Comments

Post A Comment