How strategic HR builds innovation culture

IN this second instalment of a two-part series, we put forward a few ideas on how strategic HR in Zimbabwe can be the architect of a collective organisation mindset around the innovation agenda.
Report by Brett Chulu

Culture trumps competency
Having the best brains or talent is no longer adequate enough to sustain competitive advantage.

There was a time when assembling the best- of-breed skills almost always guaranteed superior market returns. Under those circumstances, the HR agenda was clear — recruit and retain the best brains. This was the so-called race for brains or war for talent. At Independence, we had few institutions of higher learning, resulting in a fiercely competitive battle for few available places.

As access to education broadened to previously disadvantaged Zimbabweans, the country experienced a supply side challenge, with the facilities for advanced education being exceeded by the demand for places in our tertiary institutions.

For a number of years into Independence, the entry requirements, in terms of passing grades, into the University of Zimbabwe and later the country’s second university, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST),were extremely high. That selection process ensured that the brightest and smartest got advanced education, ensuring a supply of highly-skilled and intellectually-gifted individuals into our human capital markets.

For HR practitioners to get quality talent, it was a case of the name of the institute from which the job-seeker graduated — if you were an engineer from either the UZ or NUST or a journalist from Harare Polytechnic or a lawyer from the UZ, you were premium game. The education system took few, and produced few—the result was fierce competition in the human capital markets for the few well-trained premium skills.

The companies that paid well got the cream. HR strategy then, revolved around crafting attractive remuneration packages. The bloated salary structures we have today are a legacy of that period: To outflank your competitor you had to add more on top of the basic salary.

Then came the lost decade when hyperinflation outpaced the competencies acquired from formal education. In other words, the skills set gifted by formal education fell short of the brusque challenges spewed onto the operating environment by hyperinflation.

As hyperinflation fell sharply, first, negative territory in 2009 at the introduction of the multi-currency regime, and now into our current stable 4-5%inflation band, the liquidity crunch set in. Add to that, a flurry of competitively-priced goods from the East, South Africa and lately Tanzania, unprecedented economic challenges have become a permanent feature of our Zimbabwean business operating environment.

New challenges need fresh ideas. That calls for creativity and innovation. Situated within the global economic flux, where instability is ushering hitherto unheard of global challenges that transmit into local afflictions and opportunities, seismic shifting is the new normal. If the new normal is accelerating change, then innovation is no longer a differentiator—it is a hygienic factor. You either innovate or die. Period.

You must innovate again and again and again. In other words, innovation must be a culture.

Culture-building is unique to strategic HR. Culture-building is about establishing collective thinking patterns within an organisation to deliver on the expectations of external customers, shareholders and other key stakeholders.

In the midst of an environment of turmoil, from a business vantage point one thing remains constant—external customers experience pain (problems that need to be solved). New forms of pain usually emerge. That calls for business leaders to develop new tools and thinking patterns that can either predict new forms of customer pain or develop new techniques that enable them to crawl underneath the customer’s skin to emphathise with the nuances of possible novel forms of customer pain.

That empathy is then translated into value and profit propositions. That must be done again and again.

Here are a few ideas on how a culture of innovation can be architected.

Best idea is worst idea thinking

In today’s global, and more importantly our local unpredictable environment, your organisation needs to adopt a best-idea-today-is-worst-idea-tomorrow.

When you come up with an innovation, immediately depreciate it to scrap value. This depreciation metaphor is a communication hyperbole that seeks to drive home the mindset that discourages employees and executives from domesticating a we-have-finally-arrived-in-Canaan mentality.

Challenge your organisation using provocative counter-intuitive primers. For instance, when you are about to launch a ‘killer innovation’ into the market, challenge your teams with the following statement: This killer innovation we are launching is already obsolete.

Develop a conversation around this intellectual stimulus to help your teams see that to survive in a turbulent environment innovation must be done again and again.

You could also sponsor another conversation around the question: Under what circumstances will our ‘killer innovation’ be the worst idea we ever imagined? That takes your innovation approach from being a reaction to the current environment to one guided by scenarios—possible future environmental conditions. For instance, a banking organisation could ask an uncomfortable question such as “If the central government allows higher value transactions to be done via mobile phones what will be the value of our current ‘killer products?”

Two oceans thinking

Nature creatively solves tensions. In meteorology, cold air, which travels faster than warm air, lifts the warm air which, if it has sufficient moisture, will eventually result in thunderstorms.

In Cape Town, nature solves the tension caused the meeting of the warmer Ocean (Indian) and the cooler Atlantic Ocean by birthing a unique climate in that ‘convergence zone’. That confrontational zone is well-known for its unique species of flora and fauna.
In our turbulent environment, strategic HR must deliberately turn organisations into convergence zones of ideas to create environments where new ideas are born out of differences or diversity. One very simple way to ensure this is making talent interventions such as recruiting and placement deliberately seek diversity.

Paired placement is one such innovative talent practice. For instance, pairing a very experienced marketer in the exit range (nearing retirement), with a fresh graduate from university. Make it known to them that they must create an ‘ideas battle front’ to come up with new ways of solving current and future marketing challenges.

Reconstruct boundaries
For the purposes of deepening expertise, humans have constructed boundaries such as industry sectors, business functions, academic disciplines, for example. In our change-driven environment, organisations must be adept at reconstructing boundaries. Sources of powerful novel ideas almost always reside at the edges of the boundaries constructed by humans. In our attempt to simplify and focus investments, we have crowded out sources of innovation straddled across boundaries.

I had an interesting discussion last week with the CEO of a successful local microfinance company. We saw how a novel micro-financing product could be developed by reconstructing the boundary between traditional business finance and developmental sectors. If as the CEO, he can develop this mindset among his employees, there is no knowing what kind of innovations they can churn out again and again.

In our environment, what one knows today can become irrelevant overnight. We are constantly being made ignorant by rapid changes. Ideas are now more powerful than materials, so thinks Shimon Peres, president of Israel. That’s not entirely accurate. Churning out new ideas again and again and again faster than your competition is the new game in the village. Gone out of the window is the lone genius and hero-CEO. The organisation is the new hero.

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has worked with listed and non-listed companies. E-mail: brettchulu@consultant.com

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has worked with listed and non-listed companies. E-mail: brettchulu@consultant.com

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