Why HR Needs to Be More Disruptive

By Christina Folz Jun 30, 2015
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Luke Williams

Masters Series speaker Luke Williams, a professor of innovation at the New York University Stern School of Business.

LAS VEGAS—Fix what’s not broken. Ignore common sense. Don’t do your homework. Perhaps those aren’t lessons you’d expect from a business school professor during a Masters Series session June 29, 2015, at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition. But the topic was disruptive thinking—learning how to break free from well-established patterns of perception.

The speaker, Luke Williams, a professor of innovation at the New York University Stern School of Business, gave attendees lessons in how to see the world differently.

Disruptive thinking is what led one company to sell socks in threes rather than pairs, another to develop an expensive and not-so-great-tasting soft drink, and a third to rent cars without requiring a scrap of customer paperwork.

And they’ve all been hugely successful. HR departments can draw on this success, too, if they lead their organizations to embrace cultures of innovation—starting by ditching the idea that their core role is to make employees happy. “I believe the key challenge is for HR to lead disruptive change,” said Williams, best-selling author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business (Pearson FT Press, 2010). “If you’re going to lead disruptive change, you have to let go of the notion that it’s your job to make everyone comfortable.”

Get Less Data-Obsessed

When Williams consults with companies on how to become more innovative, often the first thing he hears is: “If we can just get more data … ” Yet truly creative ideas rarely come from exhaustive market research. “I’ve never seen analysis of data lead to innovation,” he said. At best, it may get you 50 percent of the way there.

But he doesn’t suggest investing millions into every harebrained scheme either. “Disruption for the sake of disruption is just really annoying for everyone,” he said. “It has to have value.”

Frequently that value can only be discovered after trying something new. That’s what the company LittleMissMatched learned after it launched an odd new product that would likely never have made it through a research-based product-development pipeline: Socks sold in sets of three, none of which match.

“They learned that 8- to 12-year-old girls like things that don’t match,” Williams said. In fact, the socks were so popular that the company went on to develop an entire line of mismatched clothing items for girls.

Step Away from the Problem-Solving

What problem was socks-sold-in-threes trying to solve? There wasn’t one, which is part of the reason that the disruption was effective. “The problem with problems is that they’re seductively clear, meaning they are screaming for attention,” Williams said. He pointed out that HR, like everyone in organizations, spends the vast majority of its time focused on trying to fix what’s not working.

However, “the richest areas [for innovation] are in the seemingly unbroken—where absolutely nothing seems wrong,” he said. “Pay attention to what’s not obvious.”

Surely there was no evident problem in the billion-dollar soda industry, which manufactures carbonated beverages known for being sugary and inexpensive. Yet one company turned that tried-and-true recipe on its head, coming out with a new product that was not sweet (Williams claims he hasn’t met anyone who thinks it tastes good) and that costs significantly more than typical soda. It’s called Red Bull.

Make Common Sense Less Common

“We’re trained to think in an analytical, linear, logical way,” Williams said. Yet “common sense is the tyranny of new ideas.”

The predilection for reasonable solutions is what often leads people in companies to only come up with incremental ideas based on what’s worked before. “It’s easy to see how incremental ideas get through,” he said. “Leaders bet on the ideas they think are right, and those are ones that track most with their experience.”

Yet any organization that embraces only that mode of transition is putting itself in a dangerous position, Williams said. “You will reach a point where you can’t make more incremental changes,” and then the company may get backed into a corner.

For years, the rental car business moved forward in such small steps. None of the players in the market challenged the assumption that cars could be rented for less than a day and without the customer having to fill out any paperwork. Until, of course, Zipcar came along with its rent-by-the-hour business model. It captured enough of the market that rental car giant Avis chose to acquire the company rather than compete with it.

Provoke People

The status quo method for thinking of new ideas is to try to predict how the world will evolve. The disruptive way is to provoke people in new ways, thereby shaping the future yourself.

“You’ve got to find a way to incentivize this sort of thinking without greenlighting every new idea,” Williams said. One way for HR to do that is to structure rewards and incentives around effort rather than results. “Worry less about your success rate and more about your rate of experimentation,” he said.

After all, Williams suggested, good thinking is not about being right; it’s about being effective.

“That means you only have to be right once,” he said.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

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