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The Human Core of Innovation

Innovation happens in the people business. This is where the muscle behind innovation lives—people.

​You might not think of innovation as something that happens regularly in human resources. But it does, and it should. Working with the C-suite and leadership, HR professionals can innovate—and test those innovations—in three areas: the work, the worker and the workplace. We define the work, whether it's a job, a career or a role. We define a worker, whether it's a gig worker or a 50-year employee. And we define the workplace, whether it's a physical plant or a remote office at home. All of those things bring us to this: Innovation happens in the people business. This is where the muscle behind innovation lives—people.

The key is to always be evolving, making progress. People drive that progress. It's the job of HR and business leaders to facilitate, nurture, pay the right talent and promote the right people who see what others don't. Who are your strategic visionaries? Google, for example, had talent who looked ahead at online marketing and met that challenge with AdWords, and the revolution was on.

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Not every new concept changes the world, however. We need inventive facilitators, too. So who are your best organizers? Some talent can be very ideation-centric, and those idea people are valuable. But it takes a different kind of visionary to see how an idea can be implemented. Promoting the right people has to be holistic to your progress.

As you evolve, People Managers become the critical linchpins for strategies. Their ability to clearly communicate the culture, build positive workplaces by listening and implement accountability by setting expectations is vital to your success. We know what failure of management looks like. In a 2019 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) report on toxic workplace culture, we discovered that 58 percent of employees who quit their jobs due to workplace culture blamed their People Manager. In that same study, 1 in 3 employees said their manager didn't know how to lead.

There is a price to pay if your People Managers are miscast and out of sync with your culture of innovation. The cost of turnover? About $223 billion over a five-year period, according to SHRM's research. The investment in strong management—your key decision-makers in the hiring of talent and your essential point people to execute your culture—is a down payment on progress.

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What core values do innovators have in common? We can look back 13 years ago for some lessons about today. Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy (McGraw-Hill Education, 2008), has written extensively about this subject from her point of view as an entrepreneur and as chief technology officer at Cisco Systems from 1998 to 2000. During the economic disaster, Estrin provided a road map for managers to consider when hiring, as she detailed some core principles that foster creative solutions:

  • Curiosity and a natural ability to question the status quo.
  • Risk taking and a willingness to learn from failure.
  • Openness—organizations with strong silos tend to be less innovative.
  • Patience, tenacity and the sense of giving an idea a chance to grow.
  • Trust, underpinning the other principles.

Determining whether you have the right people to innovate is essential. One key question always comes to my mind: Do I have people who are willing to try things, or do I have people who say they're willing to try things?

I can speak from my own experience. Many years ago, I worked at IAC (InterActiveCorp), where Barry Diller was the CEO. We had a culture club, a group to align values and vision. I had been brought in to be part of the culture club, probably because I was young, early in my career and brought a fresh perspective to the room.

Diller used to ask us, "Who's really engaging in innovation? Who's thinking big but running into resistance within the organization?" Out of those conversations, we began wrapping our minds around where IAC was headed as a company, which, at the time, was on a buying spree, snapping up companies big and small, such as Ticketmaster and Home Shopping Network. We knew one of the reasons the smaller companies were doing so well was because they were flexible and agile, able to turn on a dime. As a company and as members of the culture club, we asked ourselves, "How do we keep that entrepreneurial spirit when folding these nimble companies into a huge, global organization?"

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At the time, Jack Welch had retired as CEO of General Electric and was a key advisor for IAC. I'll never forget what he told me: The very thing that made a company attractive to you as an acquisition target is the very thing you have to continue encouraging by letting it exist and flourish within your environment. That's the culture need—room to be you, room to innovate.

So often, big-company bureaucracy can have a chilling effect on the innovation of a small-company acquisition. Our goal was to not let that happen. We wanted to give these companies access to capital and access to the best and brightest minds a big organization could provide, while making sure they maintained that small-company edge, that startup spirit of invention. We wanted the best of both worlds.

Then there was the second-tier question the culture club asked: "When we provide the best and brightest leaders to a small company, how do we convince those executives that this is not a step back?" The feedback we received was clear: OK, how do you compensate individuals who are leaving a big job at a big place for a critical position at a smaller one?

Basically, this was the bigger-is-better conundrum. How do you deconstruct that mindset?

That's what came out of the culture club. If you want this environment of innovation, if you want your small companies to keep their edge, if you want your best and brightest to guide them, you have to counterbalance it with a higher reward. When you do this, you change the culture so everyone understands that, no, bigger isn't always better.

What we heard at the culture club was the feedback you would expect: "We don't believe you. We want to, but we don't." So we started with proof of concepts, putting our money where our mouth was, and attitudes started to change. We pulled off a counterintuitive approach because we took down the obstacles to a new way of thinking about success, and we got the buy-in on that culture.

Whistleblower Laws Create a Legal Patchwork

When I was at Paramount, we had an incredibly talented team of lighting designers. Some of them dressed a certain way—very casually, let's say. To be frank, one of them wasn't into personal hygiene and structured time. He just didn't care how he looked or when he came to work. That's a lot to deal with, right? But, you know, he was really talented, and we knew he was going to do amazing things for us in design.

We had to accept him to get him, which meant providing him with a workspace that was different—his own area. Now, you have to be willing to hear from other employees who will say, "Wait, why does he get to do what he wants? Why doesn't he follow a dress code? Why doesn't he have to shower on a regular basis?" Well, because he has something very unique, and he is not violating any laws. He isn't harassing anyone. He isn't a bully or belligerent or unwilling to work hard.

We knew we were going to benefit from his unique talent. And it required us to think about what that meant culturally. There is a difference between treating people equally and treating them equitably. The latter is the fairer benchmark. OK, this is a guy who marches to a different drummer, but we're all going to gain from his beat. We let him thrive, let him create without barriers to his brilliance. We were rewarded for it because, as we expected, he was a genius at design.

You can't put stipulations on innovation. Beware of executives who say, "Yeah, great, but this is how we've done things for a decade" or "Let's start with what we already have and build on that." The only way they're willing to try an idea is by subjugating it under their own purview. Innovation doesn't happen under suppression. —J.T.

You wouldn't believe how often you will hear business leaders say they want to innovate and support innovation, then immediately invent boundaries or stymie ideas before they really get off the ground.

We've tackled this issue at SHRM. I can remember hiring somebody whom I brought in as a true-blue innovator, a master of curiosity. The trick was providing this person with the structure to make that curiosity productive. To this day, I don't know if we have gotten it exactly right, but what we've learned with innovators is there are three pieces of guidance that help fold in this kind of talent. One, you have to be very clear about the problem you want them to address. Second is understanding the help you need to provide them for support: the activators that make the idea happen. And lastly, it's essential to understand that innovators and idea people are perfectionists. You need to remind them that the pursuit of perfection is aimless, that the idea can still exist and be executed even in an imperfect state. In other words, great ideas shouldn't continue to be tinkered with on a whiteboard. They need to be implemented with room for adjustment, room for expansion, room for iteration.

You can't position invention within the lines of convention. This is how innovation gets boxed in. We see it all the time. For example, you can message all you want about new initiatives for inclusion and diversity—shout it through a megaphone—but if you don't devote the resources to it, if you remain understaffed and diverse hires are unsupported, then the path to progress hits a dead end. This is also true when we talk up a vision about innovation but disincentivize it by tying it to metrics too punitive for workers to take the risks.

When you're really fostering a culture that appreciates risk and rewards the bold, you want your smartest people to know it's better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. And I mean that within context, of course. You have to know your environment, know where the organization is and understand what a calculated risk is. As a CEO, I want my employees to innovate within reason. You can't be so reckless as to throw the entire business away and bet the farm. But by removing boundaries and allowing your best thinkers to take smart chances, you're taking down the guardrails.

From what I know of true innovators, guardrails are the last thing they'll respond favorably to. When we venture into more-imaginative traits, HR professionals will also help you understand there is a flip side to hiring innovators. Sometimes, not always, they march to the beat of a different drummer. What everyone wants—the smart, creative, innovative spirit who knows design, production and finance and will color inside the lines of your corporate structure—is something out of central casting.

The reality? All of those qualities are rarely wrapped inside one person. Often, the innovators are wired differently, and you have to accept that in order to realize the upside of the brilliant mind. 

Adapted from RESET: A Leader's Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of SHRM.

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SHRM provide resources and information to help business leaders better understand the power of innovation and build workplace cultures that foster it.

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Informed by more than 70 years of SHRM experience and expertise and propelled by extensive original research, RESET delivers a candid and forward-thinking vision for leaders to reimagine their company cultures in a time of global upheaval and presents data-driven strategies to make the necessary foundational reset of all things work. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM, is the right voice at the right time to challenge long-held assumptions and lead the revolution to build better workplaces for a better world.

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