Disruptive innovation can make HR indispensible

Disrupting the status quo can reshape an entire organization, say experts
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

HR doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the disruptive kid in class — generally, HR professionals are more concerned with preventing trouble than causing it. 

But that doesn’t have to be the case, according to speakers at a Disrupt HR Toronto event, who say the human resources department can and should be disruptive to create positive, innovative change that reshapes the entire organization. 

Challenging the status quo 

Apple, Netflix, AirBnb, Uber — they’re not just wildly successful companies, they’re industry disruptors. 

“Digital disruption is coming at such a breakneck speed and if your company is not on the digital train, it will be left behind. And I think that gives HR its biggest challenge to date: Hiring disruptors,” said Jamie Good, a Kitchener, Ont.-based digital fluency coach. 

By hiring disruptors, human resources can completely change the course of the organization, said Good. 

“Who are these disruptors? I suggest you start with the people who challenge the status quo. The status quo never, ever leads to creativity, innovation and progress — things you need in this digital economy.”

Disruptors are also people who ask difficult questions, he said. 

“Why difficult questions? Because they get to the heart of the matter and lead to creative, innovative solutions,” said Good. “Smooth sailing never ever leads to progress or protection from threats.

“Think about people who take risks: Risk leads to progress, risk leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to learning. If you’re avoiding risk, you are simultaneously writing your epitaph.”

It’s also about people who aren’t afraid of the word “or” because they look at this or that before going forward, he said.

“Contradiction is at the heart of imagination.” 

Another trait to look for is deviance, said Good.

“Someone who bypasses bureaucracy, takes shortcuts through hierarchy and bends rules. This person might be a bit unconventional but they will bring you the answers and the solutions that you need to survive digital disruption.” 

It’s also important to practise “what if,” said Good.  

“What if you don’t take risks? What if you don’t hire disruptors? You can ask Blackberry or Blockbuster that question — they’ll give you a quick answer.”

Also, hire beginners. Beginners see possibilities; experts see few, he said.

“If you have some candidate that knows nothing about your industry or company, hire them. Imagine what they will bring to the table,” said Good. 

“The founders of Napster and the Pirate Bay should never have been sued… they should have been hired as chief disruption officers in companies, and they should have been at the boardroom table… and once they’re at the boardroom table, you ask them to do something for you: Create a startup within your company that has one mandate — to bring your company down. Imagine what you would learn from that scenario.”

Boosting engagement, finding fit

Jamie Schneiderman, Toronto-based founder and CEO of ClearFit, has often felt frustrated in his career.

“Guess what I discovered? Sixty to 70 per cent of people feel the same way I did. I am in the majority. That’s 100 million people in North America who are in the wrong jobs.”

This is an epidemic — it’s a huge problem. And for the most part, companies have ignored it, he said. But high levels of turnover and disengagement are not normal. 

“It shouldn’t be happening and there’s a way to make it better — there’s a way to fix it,” said Schneiderman. 

First of all, it’s about understanding where the problem is coming from — and the answer can be encapsulated in one word: Fit. 

Schneiderman cited the example of two pharmaceutical companies that were basically poaching salespeople from each other. And then there was an oil and gas company that was promoting service technicians, who were already succeeding in the company, into account managers.

While the approach in both cases may have seemed logical, it’s not a good strategy because it doesn’t account for the individual’s fit in that particular role, he said. 

Instead of looking exclusively at concerns such as past performance, experience and skills, it’s about looking at the bigger picture and putting the person into context, said Schneiderman. 

“The thing about this is it’s contextual — it changes and it continues to change,” he said. 

“You have people who are performing well today — the question is why?

“You take one human being, put them in one job, and they’re super successful. Take the same person out of that job, put them in another job, and it’s a disaster. It happens all the time and we have no idea why that’s happening.” 

Putting CHROs on top

Kristen Harcourt, senior consultant at the McQuaig Institute in Toronto, provider of behavioural assessments, has a dream for HR that would put it at the top of the organizational chart, as important or more important than the chief executive officer. 

“If you talk to people like Richard Branson or Oprah Winfrey, and you ask them what is the secret to their success, the first thing they say is that they surround themselves with the best people. They hire the best people, and they would not be as successful without those individuals.”

People are the heart of an organization. It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is — if you don’t have the right people to execute it, you’re not going to be as successful, according to Harcourt. So why isn’t human resources, and specifically the CHRO, at the top of the organization?

“I would argue that some HR professionals could be doing some things a little bit differently. So what would I like to see change? (We should) have HR completely understanding the interests of the organization — what’s happening inside it, what’s happening externally? It’s not enough to know what your organization does, what your product and service is, but where is it in the market? Where is the competition in the market? You need to know every single aspect of this,” said Harcourt. 

“By having that really good understanding of what’s going on in the organization, when you’re making decisions, you’re really getting a feel for (how that) affects the bigger picture.”

Another issue is HR doesn’t generally build strong enough internal relationships. 

“In order to have that deep knowledge of what goes on inside that organization, you need to have really strong relationships from the bottom to the top and all the way across. 

How do you make that happen? I challenge you every week to have a coffee date… with a different stakeholder within the organization,” she said. 

The goal is simply to spend time doing a lot of listening, asking a lot of questions, so you start to understand what goes on day to day in that part of the organization, said Harcourt. 

“What are the goals, what are the opportunities, what do they need now, what do they need in the future? And you start to become that strategic partner. When you’re making those people decisions, you’re understanding the bigger picture,” she said.

“Whatever you don’t feel comfortable with, don’t feel confident about, that’s what you want to learn about.”

Young and hungry

Just about every employer talks about the importance of hiring young, emerging talent to inject fresh perspectives into the mix — but not many actually do it right, according to Ryan Porter, founder and CEO of Going 180 Media in Toronto, parent company of RaiseYourFlag.com. 

To truly get the best out of young talent, it’s about introducing that killer instinct — hiring wolves, he said. 

A trophic cascade is an ecological phenomenon where a person does something at the top of an ecosystem and it cascades down and affects every other level in that ecosystem. 

“One of the greatest examples of trophic cascade is years ago, there were no wolves in Yellowstone Park. They got rid of the wolves so the glorious elk could graze… but the problem was, the elk started populating,” he said. 

Soon, they were taking over the entire park. 

“They started grazing the park bare, they started killing the vegetation, there was crazy erosion, rivers started sinking out to the side… so what the park did was, they (reintroduced) wolves into the system,” said Porter.

The wolves started killing some elk — but then trees started growing five times their original height, vegetation started growing back and the soil started becoming stronger. 

“(Generally), as we approach entry level workers and entry level employment, we hire elk. We cater to university, college graduates almost exclusively. They are the elk of the ecosystem,” said Porter. 

“When you’re approaching your next employees, I want you to pretend that degrees do not exist. I want you to frame your job postings like a degree is not a thing and see how we would approach it.”

This requires a complete rethinking around job postings, he said. 

“When you do list things on your job posting, I want you to enter everything to task… tell them exactly how they are going to have to use (specific skills) at your workplace, give them examples, and make everything a skill,” said Porter. 

“The final thing that you should be doing when you’re approaching entry level employment and employees is target craftspeople. I want you to find the people who have shown that they are in the pursuit of skills.” 

These are the young workers who are bettering themselves — who are doing things that are aligning with the success archetype within your company.

“The problem is — or the great thing is, depending on how you look at it — elk are elk. You can’t hire an elk to do the job of a wolf. You can’t hire a wolf to do the job of an elk. If you hire an elk to do a wolf’s job, they’re going to fail and it’s going to affect everyone,” he said. 

“If you want more productivity, better culture, better people, the way you do that is you hire a little bit of elk and you welcome wolves to the workplace.” 

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