Innovate or Die. 3 Things HR can do to Create Best Places to Work

By Mary Ila Ward

Innovation is a buzzword in business now. In a fast-paced world where change is constant and adapting is necessary in order to survive in business, innovation seems to be what all people want to point to that keeps companies alive. “Innovate or die” we hear. But is it worth all the hype?

In today’s business world, value must created in order to be and remain competitive. Innovation is the process by which value is created; therefore, it is truly necessary.

We often speak of innovation in terms of products or services. While very important, people or human resources/capital innovation, can and should take shape in the workplace because of how it can contribute value that translates into dollars and cents. Interestingly enough, many of the most innovative companies are also labeled as best places to work. This is no coincidence.

So what can HR do to innovate? In looking at the research, here are three things HR needs to be doing to create an innovative people management environment:

Hire for fit AND diversity

Let’s face it, hiring is where your organization starts. It’s where HR starts its job and quickly proves or disproves its value, and it is where those who are winning in business focus a large part of their efforts.

Being an innovator in the workplace starts with whether or not you have innovators coming in the door.

To get innovators in the door you must:

  1. DEFINE.
  • Clearly define your culture. This most often comes through defining your organization’s values.
  • Clearly define what your “A” players do – both “A” players across the organization, and in particular roles.
  1. DESIGN and MEASURE your hiring process against the standard you’ve created in the first step.

Many often tie this standard to fit. As Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules!, which is about Google’s people practices, says, “Superb hiring isn’t just about recruiting the biggest name, top salesperson, or cleverest engineer. It’s about finding the very best people WHO WILL BE SUCCESSFUL WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF YOUR ORGANIZATION, who will make everyone around them more successful.” (emphasis added).

  1. KNOW WHAT WORKS. Look at the research to understand what selection methods predict work performance and employ them in your hiring process. The quick cliff notes version is that work sample tests are the best predictor of job performance, followed by cognitive ability and structured interviews. Employing these, except in the case of cognitive ability, only works if you’ve been able to do step one by defining what these methods should measure. However, a combination of these methods, or a multiple hurdles approach, is better than any single method. So stack them up in your process.
  1. GO find the best.

Actively go and find the best talent; don’t post and pray. This starts with building your social capital. An HR innovator should spend a significant amount of his or her time networking in order to hire the best.

  1. TRAIN people on how to interview.

Interviewing is a learned skill that gets better with research grounded guidance and practice. Provide tools, like structured interview formats and the scoring mechanism that goes along with them, but train people on how to use them. Use case studies, examples, and data to back up your points so that hiring managers want to use the tools you are giving them instead of feeling like it is one more hassle to fool with.

  1. Use DATA.

Track hiring against performance and see what trends arise. Do you need to change your process? Better define your standards? Train a certain department or group on better hiring practices? Constantly improve what you are doing by seeing what your outcomes are and how you can let that inform your inputs. As you will see, this data should also include benchmarking for working to diversify your workforce through hiring.

What about diversity?

But “whoa, whoa, wait a minute,” you say. This sounds all well and good, but what about diversity. Some of the things mentioned above, like cognitive ability tests, often discriminate against anyone that isn’t white and male. Also, there’s a lot of information out there about how hiring for fit limits diversity. Even Harvard Business Review said such, and who argues with them?

But there is a way to do both, and you need to do both, because the combination of the two leads to innovation. You don’t get it without them both.

Here are some ideas on how to make sure you’re intentional about hiring for diversity:

  1. Create collaborative hiring teams. Teams that are made up of different people along different traditional diversity lines (age, gender, race, etc.), but also along departments, tenure with the company, etc. No one person should be able to make a hiring decision alone.
  2. Just like you need to train people on how to interview, you need to talk and train openly on unconscious bias. What it is, how to spot it, and how avoid it. You also need to teach and train on the value of diversity and how the topic can be much deeper than how society plays it. Some things to look at to help you do this are (google each of them):

Create an Environment of Freedom

This starts with the mindset that people are fundamentally good and are the source of all innovation. As Bill Gates said, “The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility (freedom) to their employees will have the edge in this area.” 

Giving freedom is the way you behaviorally demonstrate to people that you trust them. When people are trusted, they feel free to experiment, fail, learn and grow, which leads to company growth.

Some ideas for creating freedom that leads to innovation comes from some of the known innovation hubs:

  • 3M allows its employees to spend 15% of their time to work on their own projects. Other innovators do likewise. Google has used a 20% standard.
  • Nike experimented with a T-shirt factory in Mexico giving workers in a specific plant more freedom by letting them help set production targets, form their own teams, decide how work should be accomplished, and allowed them to stop production if they thought they saw problems. Production at this plant was found to be twice as high as at another similar plant that was tightly controlled.
  • Flex-time and work from home as well as telecommuting arrangements are becoming widespread and cater to people’s desire for freedom in how and when work gets done. Most studies show these arrangements increase productivity.
  • Some companies are going as far as to eliminate setting limits on vacation or paid time off.

Structure Rules to Preserve Freedom and Culture

Rules don’t have to contradict the need for a certain amount of freedom that is necessary for innovation to take place. The innovators create rules that ensure freedom and culture are preserved.

Ask yourself these two questions when you go about rule making to foster innovation:

1. “Can I directly tie this rule back to one of our company’s core values that creates our competitive advantage?”

For example, many manufacturers have the core value of safety. Therefore, there are rules that govern working safe. In this case, dress code, such as wearing steel-toed boots and other PPE (personal protective equipment), is a rule and it a non-negotiable one. Dress code in another industry and in another company may not be needed in the rulebook at all. Remember, is it helping you create value?

2. “Does this rule push authority down, treating people with a sense of freedom over their work?”

In the book Work Rules! , Laszlo Bock spends a good portion of the book describing Google’s rules to ensure that dictators can’t arise, or as he describes it, “Letting the inmates run the asylum” by “taking power away from your managers and trusting your people to run things.”

Are You An HR Innovator?

As Ben Whitter said in one of his LinkedIn posts, “The best people and HR leaders I know have been labeled maverick at one time or another because they build something that goes against the norm, they challenge the status quo, and they see beyond the perceived limitations of their function and therefore extend well beyond it. They bring meaning to the workplace and it runs through everything that affects people.”

Being a workplace innovator requires hiring innovators and structuring a work environment that fosters innovation. When you become one, you end up helping your workplace win “Best Place to Work” awards. Be a maverick and innovate…. or die.

Mary Ila Ward, SHRM-SCP, SPHR Horizon Point Consulting

Mary Ila Ward, SHRM-SCP, SPHR
Horizon Point Consulting