There are four critical areas where HR can play an important role in cultivating innovation to help drive business results, writes Amantha Imber

Through the role Inventium plays in judging the BRW Most Innovative Companies list, I get to see how a lot of organisations approach innovation. And sadly, the way many organisations approach innovation is in an unsustainable and disorganised manner. The innovations they have achieved success with have often been the result of good luck and good timing; but because of a lack of structure, systems and capability across the organisation, they are often unable to achieve repeat success with other innovations. I call these organisations “innovation one-hit wonders”.

The HR function can play a hugely important role in moving organisations away from being one-hit wonders and towards adopting and embedding a sustainable approach to innovation. There are four areas where HR can play a critical role: culture, capability, process and roles.

Creating a culture of innovation
Much has been written about how to create a culture where innovation thrives, but unfortunately, most of what is written simply does not work. Putting a foosball table in the kitchen and beanbags in meeting rooms is unlikely to transform the culture of your organisation, unfortunately. Thankfully, the topic of innovation culture is one that has occupied many academics, and there is now sound scientific research that pinpoints exactly what creates a culture of innovation.

One of the most important factors in creating a culture of innovation is having an environment where risk-taking is encouraged. One of the only certainties about innovation is that if you are doing it properly, failure will be a given at some point in time. Not every idea your organisation comes up with will be successful, and most ideas will need significant iteration and refinement before they will delight customers. As such, HR needs to help leaders signal to the organisation that failure is encouraged, and to see failure as an opportunity to learn what matters most to customers.

“One of the only certainties about innovation is that if you are doing it properly, failure will be a given at some point in time”

An example of a company that has embraced innovation and failure is the Tata Group. The Tata Group run an annual innovation award program called their InnoVista awards. As well as awarding prizes to successful innovations from across the organisation, the program also consists of a category of awards called the “Dare To Try” awards. These awards are given to innovations that  were not a commercial success in the market, but where the learnings gained were incredibly rich and useful. The awards have been a very successful way of signalling to the organisation that risk-taking is acceptable and that in fact, failure will be rewarded.

Building innovation capability
Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not an innate skill some of us are born with and others are not. The skills involved in being a successful innovator are largely learned. There is much scientific research that demonstrates that with the right tools, stimuli and frameworks, every single person with a functioning brain is capable of improving their ability to innovate and think more creatively.

There are three main skill sets that HR practitioners need to help their organisations learn and embed. The first skill set is around identifying customer-driven opportunities. This involves helping people understand how to observe and speak to customers in order to identify their biggest problems and frustrations. If we can identify what frustrates customers and create solutions that reduce or eliminate frustrations, innovation efforts will be successful.

“Teaching people how to generate both incremental and breakthrough ideas is important and is a skill set that is relatively simple to teach”

The second skill set is around idea generation and creativity. Teaching people how to generate both incremental and breakthrough ideas is important and is a skill set that is relatively simple to teach.

Finally, teaching people the skills to prototype ideas quickly and efficiently is important. Rather than jumping straight to implementation, people need to first understand how to prototype their ideas and test them with real customers. Getting feedback from customers will allow your organisation to learn quickly and iterate, and ensure that the innovation that eventually gets implemented is one that resonates with customers and truly adds value to their lives.

Creating a process for innovation
While terms like Process and Structure might seem like the antitheses of innovation, having a clear process for innovation is actually incredibly important. Too often innovation is just left to chance, and in many organisations, when people have a great idea, they are unclear as to the avenues to get that idea heard (especially if they have a manager who is not supportive of innovation). As such, HR can play a role in creating a process for innovation.

Some of the elements of a good innovation process include:

  • The process doesn’t start with idea generation; instead, it starts with identifying the biggest customer needs or frustrations that the organisation can look to solve.
  • Those challenges or problems to be solved are clearly communicated to the organisation so that everyone knows what they should be focusing their idea generation efforts on.
  • The process sits independently from the organisational hierarchy so that it doesn’t matter if a person’s manager doesn’t support innovation directly.
  • The process has a thorough prototyping stage so that ideas don’t move straight to innovation and potentially waste money through not first being tested with customers.

Integrating innovation into people’s roles
Finally, HR needs to play a role in ensuring that every individual in the organisation understands how innovation fits into their role. Just like with any organisational focus, if it is not clearly integrated into what people understand their role to be, and how their performance is evaluated, it is unlikely people will engage.

“HR needs to play a role in ensuring that every individual in the organisation understands how innovation fits into their role”

Consider how innovation can be incorporated into people’s job descriptions and Key Performance Indicators. Think about what sort of innovation-related behaviours you want to encourage and then recognise and reward those accordingly. These behaviours might relate to people’s contribution to solving problems, they might relate to cross-functional collaboration on coming up with solutions, or they might relate to implementing ideas that add value to customers’ lives.

So rather than just letting innovation happen by chance, HR professionals need to help their organisation take a more systematic and deliberate approach to innovation. Without this, you risk the chance of simply becoming another innovation one-hit wonder.

Top 5 drivers of a culture of innovation

  1. Positive interpersonal exchange: People feel a strong sense of cohesion across the organisation and feel like they are all playing for the same team.
  2. Intellectual stimulation: The debate and discussion of ideas is encouraged and supported in the organisation.
  3. Challenge: Individuals feel that their job is challenging, complex and interesting but at the same time not overly taxing or stressful.
  4. Flexibility and risk-taking: The organisation is willing to take risks and deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity that tends to go hand in hand with innovation.
  5. Top management support: People see the top level of management as being supportive of innovation and new ideas.