Pursuing innovation requires revamped leadership agenda: Expert

Five strategies to help CHROs build an employee-powered innovation culture
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/31/2018
Polly Labarre
A CHRO’s role is to foster a workplace culture that mobilizes successful change movements through a reshaped leadership model, said innovation expert Polly Labarre at HRPA’s CHRO Conference 2018 in Toronto on May 3. Credit: Ali Aghtar/HRPA

Contrary to most leadership mandates, innovation is not a top-down procedure, according to Polly Labarre, author and editorial director of the Management Lab in New York.

“Most large change programs or transformation programs fail… because they are tightly scripted and engineered from the top down, because they’re rolled out and pushed out to the organization versus trying to figure out where is the momentum,” she said. 

“If you look at the history of successful… change and social movements, often the most impactful change starts in the smallest way and the most unexpected places,” said Labarre, speaking at CHRO Conference 2018, hosted by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto last month.

The role of a CHRO is to foster a culture that mobilizes those types of movements through a reshaped leadership model, she said.

“The vast majority of employees still work under the dead hand of ‘business as usual,’” said Labarre.

“For far too many people, the world is far less creative, far less productive, and far less fulfilling than it could be. That is profoundly limiting for individuals and it’s increasingly ruinous for the organizations in which they work.”

“It’s not that leaders don’t grasp the grave, existential importance of expanding their ability to adapt and innovate, to keep pace with all the relentless change in the world. It’s not that they haven’t seen decade after decade of insurgents crushing incumbents,” she said.

“It’s because… while (industry leaders) have so many resources… It’s the challengers that tend to have the resourcefulness, the agility, the ingenuity, the audacity to reinvent their industry and to keep reinventing themselves.”

Modern organizational structure was not designed for adaptability or innovation, said Labarre. Rather, it was created more than a century ago to maximize predictability and control.

“The processes, systems, the power structures that rule organizations of every stripe today, they were invented at the same time to routinize, to standardize, to control human unpredictability and variation — to effectively squash all kinds of initiative and imagination and passion. That’s called bureaucracy.”

Such a framework does not foster creative disruption — the order of the current economy — “where it is the creative and the disruptive individuals and organizations that win,” she said.

“All change, by definition, is against the rules. Creativity is fundamentally subversive in nature. Inventing the new is an act of defiance in a world that’s characterized by obedience to convention,” said Labarre.

“It’s the outliers, the individuals and the organizations who are eager and willing to challenge the status quo who tend to come up with the ground-breaking and the world-changing solutions today.”

An organization’s capacity to adapt and innovate is a function of an HR leader’s ability to unleash and mobilize employees’ ingenuity, she said.

“Your challenge is to migrate, to create a migration path from the well-entrenched models of leadership and employment, and work to a more fully human design.”

There are five strategies that can help CHROs and human resources departments build an innovation culture powered by engaged employees, according to Labarre: lead with authority, operate with transparency, “hack your org,” prototype the future, and learn as quickly as you can.

 Lead with authority

The most vibrant and innovative employers operate with a different set of design rules, where leadership is conducted by committee, ideation is encouraged and career paths are individual, she said.

“These principles — and ones like them — they are on the march. They’re woven into the DNA of the next generation of leaders.”

HR leaders need to shift their mindset to foster mobilization and inspiration of employees in a collective effort to achieve greatness, said Labarre.

Even as the world moves in the direction of individual freedoms such as global connectivity, and endless creative platforms, “that kind of individual autonomy — the expansion of it — lags far behind in the world of organization.”

Operate with transparency

Allowing all employees an opportunity to align themselves with new ideas or initiatives is another pillar of the new leadership agenda, according to Labarre.

“The work of leadership is less about directing and planning and making decisions and visioning, and it’s more about involving people,” she said.

“One of the most powerful ways you can become more than the sum of your parts, where you can punch above your weight as an organization, is to devise a powerful architecture of contribution, which is something that enlists, inspires, mobilizes a rich mix of creative, talented, passionate people wherever they sit in your organization, and even beyond your organization, to become true co-creators of the future.”

Innovation can often become a charisma contest, excluding quieter, fringe voices on the front lines of the organization, said Labarre. Organizational leadership needs to instead find a solution that democratizes the production of all ideas.

Hack your org

Realigning an organization to fuel innovation is another critical step for HR leaders, she said.

“If you really want to create a sustaining capacity for innovation and adaptability in your organization, you need an organizational model in which innovation is intrinsic to every system, every process, every structure and instinctive to every person inside the organization.”

Employers attempting to reorganize their management model in this fashion ultimately face the following question: How do I create an unstoppable wave of change? said Labarre.

“If you’re serious about building an organization that can adapt and move with the times, you’ve got to get very serious about that question,” she said. “It’s a question that should be on the plate of all HR leaders.”

“Retooling an organization’s management model to make innovation a true core competence, that’s not something you assign to a staff group. It’s also not something you can engineer from the top down or roll out through some kind of military campaign.”

To unleash a “cohort of innovation activists,” employers need to put all staff on the same level as the senior leadership team, said Labarre, adding “glorified suggestion boxes” are simply no longer adequate.

Prototype the future

The future of work is created through quick action and rampant experimentation, rather than a strategic plan mentality, she said.

“If you can get hip to the mindset that all that wasted flailing around and rounds of testing is just work in progress on the way to discovery, then you have a much better chance of being an organization that’s able to find the future.”

Companies favouring agility and decision by experimentation are winning the market, said Labarre.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It gets away from that traditional conventional approach of getting things started in companies, where we spend all our time at the front end, we devise a perfect plan, we get funding, we get buy-in, we put everything upfront before we even try anything.”

“The new approach — the experimental method — is much more a series of loops, where we’re designing,” said Labarre. “We’re testing, we’re iterating.”

Executives will eventually need to rule on an idea’s validity in the marketplace, but allowing it to blossom to that point is an HR leader’s task, she said.

Companies such as Amazon realize failure is inevitable on the way to success, said Labarre.

“Amazon is eating the world. They are generating new services, new products, new businesses at an astonishing rate.”

Learn as quickly as you can

HR leaders would benefit by remaining hungry and humble, she said.

“Whatever your industry, something is changing underfoot, maybe even overnight,” said Labarre. “It’s on you to shed the certainties and the assumptions and the methods that got you where you are today.”

One practical measure is to simply ask more questions, she said.

“Creativity is fundamentally subversive in nature. It’s on you to invite the edge in, to develop a contrarian point of view, to invite dissent in... Make an effort to ask more questions than you give answers, day in and day out, year in and year out.”

Questions open the mind to humility, curiosity and possibility — a childlike mindset, said Labarre.

“Children are blown open by questions. They are experiencing the world for the first time, every single day. They have the ultimate fresh eyes. That’s what we need to get back to. We’ve essentially built organizations that squash out 90 per cent of the deep human creative gifts and capacity that we so desperately need today. This is about undoing that,” she said.

“Practising that kind of innocence takes a lot of courage, because sometimes your questions are going to seem stupid. But you have to remember it’s the questions that nobody’s asked before that reveal the innovative ideas that nobody has tried before.”

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