Innovation versus process: Day one of #CIPD12

Life is about contrast, the good and the bad, the brave and the faint hearted, the inspirational and the disappointing. The great thing about contrast is that it helps you to form an opinion, helps you to learn and, if you take the time to reflect and consider, it can help you to grow.

The first day of the CIPD Annual Conference has been a lot about contrast.

As an opening session, Gary Hamel was never going to disappoint. Energetic, humorous, informed and challenging.  Some of the quotes alone were worth attending for,

“No-one grows up wanting to be a manager”

“Markets are better at allocating resources than managers”

“Management was created by engineers and accountants…..and it shows”

And my personal favourite,

“Organisations are like dogs, really good at peeing on lamp posts, not so good at doing the tango”

But entertainment is one thing.  Was there substance behind it and what did we know that we didn’t know before we entered the room? The answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second….not so much. But ou often don’t need to learn, just being reminded can be powerful.

The basis for future organisational success and growth needs to be about defining a higher purpose which we can all collectively work towards. Management is a tool that has developed to ensure conformity, but the organisations that will thrive and succeed are those that are not focussed on conformity, but focussed on innovation. And as HR people the fundamental issue for us is not developing better processes, better tools or better methods, but helping to develop better principles. In order to innovate and create at speed we need to focus on decentralization and not centralization.

Music to my ears.

The thing is, though, as an HR profession we have been focussed on the antithesis of these principles. We have become focussed on process and procedure. We desire conformity and control more than anything and this lust has led us on an ongoing agenda of centralization and aggregation. We have shown the greatest lack of ingenuity, innovation and free thinking since the lemmings all decided it was a good idea to follow one another off the cliff.

But life is full fo contrasts and on leaving the session, I went in to another (to remain unnamed) where I was presented with a “case study” full of process and procedure. And when I say full……I mean full. There isn’t enough Valium in the world to get me through that session.

If this is an organisational challenge then it is one which we are ill-equipped and ill prepared to tackle as we currently stand. Both a risk and at the same time an amazing opportunity. Because if we can get our own house in order, then we can play an important role of the evolution of business, work and the workplace.

From what I see though, we have a long way to go.

Creating growth

My friend Rick over at Flip Chart Fairytales wrote a post recently bemoaning (or at least questioning) the lack of creativity in business. Pulling together a number of commentators he makes, as you’d expect, some great points and the comments are equally as good. But, I read the post with a certain sense of despair.

“Creativity has always been a long hard slog, slowed down by corporate obstacles, spiked by saboteurs and smothered by indifference. But I’m not sure this is any worse now than it has ever been.”

So why the despair?

First is the sadly common mistake of mixing the terms innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity. I’d argue these are very different skills and very different mindsets.

There is a pervasive “old world” business approach and mindset to the blog. A lot of the comments refer to creativity taking place in small start-ups that are later bought by the corporate giants and therefore the lack of creativity in those corporations, and hence a passive outsourcing of thinking.

I’ll come back to that point later.

However, most depressing is a focus on a very limited segment of the economy. And here it brings me great pleasure to introduce to you, the creative industries. That’s right, there are business out there that have as their core, as their raison d’etre, a creative purpose. Film making, gaming, television, design and yes….publishing, to name but a few. We, in Britain, are incredibly lucky to have a ridiculously healthy creative industry. And it isn’t small, the creative industries in their entirety are as big, if not bigger, than the financial services sector. We have the biggest creative industry in Europe and, pound for pound, probably the world.

More so, this is an industry that is growing and growing, despite the current economic climate.

Is there a lack of creativity in UK plc? No. Really, no.

Rick and those that commented are talking about one or two specific sectors of the economy, they are confusing entrepreneurial flair and innovation with genuine creativity. The UK economy is thriving with creativity, but it is lacking the focus and investment that other, less profitable and, dare I say it, less future proof industries receive. If Government is serious about growth then it could do far worse than focus on the creative industries as the keystone of recovery.

Now, to come back to the point about passive outsourcing. Business is changing, the face and structure of business is in an evolutionary stage. Small businesses, sole traders, bedroom ventures are all bursting with innovation and entrepreneurial endeavour. Many of them are niche, many of them don’t grow, many of them don’t want to grow and ultimately some of them do sell out to corporate monoliths, before then going on to their next endeavour. Is there anything wrong with that? I honestly don’t think so. That is at the heart of entrepreneurialism.

So, to answer Rick’s question, “Is there a creativity crisis?” No. Are our established corporations designed for entrepreneurial flair and innovation? Also no.

But the two questions are not the same.

Our creative industries are thriving, they are full of truly creative people, not bureaucrats, working to make world-class products and develop leading edge content. They may be quiet, they may sometimes be unseen, but they are an economic force to be reckoned with.

Overlook them at your peril.

Ordinary leads to ordinary

One of the biggest problems within the HR profession, is a lack of innovation. By this I don’t mean harebrained schemes dreamed up in those horrible “away days” that come to nothing, or worse, that actually come to something…….pointless. I mean true innovation. The creation of new and different ways of thinking about situations, and the definition of exciting future realities.

Why?

Because we worry too much about “the practicalities”. The moment that anyone starts to suggest ideas, to progress thoughts that are maybe slightly out of the everyday is also the moment that others start to provide reasons why it wouldn’t be possible.

Because we have to deal with practicalities right? We have to take into account the reality?

Yes. And no.

You see the problem with staying rooted to the practicalities is that you are anchoring your reality to the now, to the understood and known and therefore any solution you pitch will also fall into the understood and the known. It won’t be a game changer, it won’t radically alter anything. It will be humdrum.

When you frame your thinking in the ordinary, your solutions will be ordinary.

Now I know that at this point people will start telling me that there have been innovative solutions for mundane problems. Think Velcro, think Tippex, think Elastoplast. But innovation that shifts our paradigm does so because it pays no account to practicalities….it redefines them.

Think the internet. Think the steam engine. Think the transistor.

These are not answers to problems; these are enhancements to society. If we accept the workplace is a community, then we too should be striving for innovative enhancements rather than tactical solutions. Not every idea that we ever come up with will fly, but if we stop worrying about the here and the now and start defining the future, we’re more likely to find a shining jewel.

Practicality is the enemy of innovation.

Create value

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If you had to rank the professions on their level of creativity, where would you rank the HR profession? Probably somewhere on the continuum between accounting and marketing, probably closer to the former and further from the latter.  Creativity doesn’t figure highly in any core competencies I have ever seen and the nearest that we get is the more “business acceptable” innovation.  Somehow creativity feels soft, it raises images of artists and writers and nebulous concepts, whereas we of course want to look hard and mean and commercial and worthy of the much vaunted “seat at the top table”.

Of course, we deal in a world full of commercial imperatives that cannot be denied.  Most of us work in businesses that either need to make a profit, balance the books, or make savings regardless of the sector.  The question is not the what, but the how and creativity is a much undervalued tool in the drive for commercial solutions.  We need an answer, we look to past experience, to other businesses and to the HR press seldom do we look at our business, look inside ourselves and search for a new or different way. A way that is bespoke to our business and provides a competitive edge.

I’d suggest the first step any HR professional should ever take in considering a solution is to ask what the real problem is and only then to consider whether a solution is actually required and why? What value will it add? Is this driven by business need or by some other force.  What is the least intervention that would solve the problem and how does it fit culturally with the way that the business behaves?

Creativity requires you to be brave. It requires confidence and self belief and a willingness to plot a unique course.  But it also requires a closeness and in-depth understanding of your business and a desire to make a difference. Being creative isn’t the antithesis of being commercial. It is the start.