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How strategic HR builds innovation culture

SHIMON Peres, president of Israel was recently quoted as saying: “Ideas are now more powerful than materials.”

Report by Brett Chulu

He observed: “Two boys create Google. One boy creates Facebook. Another individual creates Apple. These gentlemen changed the world without political parties or armies or fortunes. No one anticipated this… You may have the strongest army—it cannot conquer ideas, it cannot conquer knowledge.”

The innovation culture that Shimon Peres is so eloquently painting does not occur by happenstance. The creators of Google belong to what is known as the Montessori Mafia — a group of innovative business leaders who went through the Montessori system of education in which students’ creativity capacity is sparked and deepened through autonomy and self-paced learning rooted in experimentation and exploration.

In this two-part series, we advance the case that strategic HR is providentially placed to build an innovation culture that will constantly churn out new ideas that add to customer value and the bottom line.

Talent differs from culture
Talent is about individuals. Culture is about turning individual abilities into an organisation-wide capability.

If an organisation succeeds in building an innovation culture, two key features are created. First, employees from the shop floor to the boardroom will demonstrate behaviours that reflect innovativeness.

A trait such as creativity, which is an essential input into the innovation process, will not be the preserve of the top executives. Within preset risk appetite parameters employees are primed to exercise their creativity in delivering value to targeted stakeholders.

Second, changes in personnel at the top echelons of the organisation will not result in an organisation losing its innovative edge. That’s because having morphed into a culture, innovation becomes less dependent on individual talent. The departure of a CEO should not result in the market selling off shares in the fear that the departure of the head of the institution signals the end of an innovation culture that has been the source of earnings growth.

Creativity not innovation
Without a deep understanding of what constitutes innovation and the processes that drive it, HR executives will not be able to assemble the right combo of practices to build a collective innovation mindset.

HR must understand the difference between creativity and business innovation. That conceptual distinction is critical for HR to master in order for its unique investments to impact on an organisation’s key financial metrics such as earnings per share and market capitalisation. Creativity is the process by which new ideas are developed in the mind.

Business innovation is the translation of new ideas into customer value and profit propositions. Brilliant new ideas that do not add value to customers and key stakeholders do not equate innovation. However, creativity is a key source for innovations.

Notwithstanding the fact that creativity is not innovation, HR can play a critical role in creating the enablers for an environment that fosters creativity.

Creating innovation environment
HR can use knowledge from recent organisational psychological research to pull the levers that unlock individual creativity.

Teresa Amabile, a well-renowned professor with the Harvard Business School, recently completed a very rigorous study that teased out the impact of the work environment on the creativity of employees. She found that employees who work in environments characterised by fun and happiness exhibited more creativity than workers in gloomy and melancholic workplaces.

Amabile noted: “There’s this widespread notion that fear and sadness somehow spur creativity.” Amabile’s research findings run counter to the phenomenon of the “depressed genius’’ widely held in the psychological circles.  In her study, she found that an employee was likely to develop a breakthrough idea if they were happy the day before. Interestingly, the study established that an anticipation of downsizing depresses creativity. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the study found that highly-pressured environments decrease employee-creativity.  Amabile concluded:  ‘People were least creative when they were fighting the clock’.

Daniel Pink, another thought leader, who belongs to the Thinkers50 list of business management thinkers, has scoured tonnes of research on creativity in the workplace. Pink concluded that “People are most creative when they care about their work and they are stretching their skills. If the challenge is far beyond their skill level, they tend to get frustrated. If it’s far below their skill level, they tend to get bored.’’

On the impact of pay-for-performance on creativity, Pink noted that when people believe that every move is going to affect their pay or rewards they become risk averse. He further noted that creative people placed more value on the work environment than pay. According to this line of research, employees need to be rewarded fairly so that they do not spend time thinking about survival issues. Beyond fair pay, extra monetary rewards to drive more creativity is a waste of money. One does not need to throw tonnes of money to increase workplace creativity.

Can strategic HR in Zimbabwe adopt these findings to craft practices that can improve workplace creativity?

It is unfortunate that these researches have not been replicated in environments such as Africa and Zimbabwe in particular. For that reason, HR would need to take a piecemeal approach, incorporating a few of these findings.

This implies that HR will develop practices around a few findings and use their workplaces as laboratories to test their validity under specific organisational circumstances. That way the risk of HR losing credibility with other business leaders is minimised as the risk appetite will have been predefined and the tests designed as fail-small trials. The upside of a successful replication of the research findings can become a source of competitive advantage if the increased creativity can be turned into customer value and profit propositions.

Reorienting leadership
In 1968, George Land, a researcher on creativity and innovation used a creativity test that NASA used to select innovative engineers.

Land first gave the test to 1 600 five-year olds. He then retested this group when they reached the age of 10 and 15. Land gave the same test to 280 000 adults. The results were astounding.

Ninety-eight percent (98%) of the five-year olds exhibited high levels of creativity. Five years later, only 30% showed creativity, a dramatic drop of 68 percentage points. Of the 280 000 adults who took the same test only 2% exhibited creativity.

Land’s conclusion was brusque and candid: “What we have concluded is that non-creative behaviour is learned.” In simple terms, Land is saying the natural creative impetus in children is systematically destroyed by the education system. Ken Robinson, a celebrated thinker of the role of creativity in the education system, wrote in his book Out of our minds: Learning to be creative: ‘We are educating people out of their creativity.’

If creativity is the key input into the innovation process, the realisation that, on average, adults show less affinity for creativity, means that strategic HR cannot hope for creativity to blossom in the workplace without a deliberate strategy to birth it. Strategic HR should take up a visible role in developing creativity as one of the competencies of the leadership.

The anti-creativity inertia built into leadership as a result of the many years of formal schooling and business training which places a premium on being a watchdog of risk must be overcome.

Benjamin Franklin once said: ‘All humanity is divided into three classes: those who are immovable, those who are movable, and those who move!’ Strategic HR should choose to be movers of the organisational creativity agenda.

Brett is a strategic HR consultant who has worked with listed and unlisted companies. Let’s discuss at brettchulu@consultant.com.

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