It’s deeper than people thinking differently

Four SCNetwork members discuss Michelle Moore’s presentation on disruptive talent


Jan van der Hoop: Michelle Moore opened up November’s SCNetwork session with a discussion of customer expectations. By and large, consumers (let’s not forget that present and future employees are consumers also) are drawn to products and organizations that are relevant, engaging, current, convenient and well-designed. The interaction and the experience (process and technology) need to be rewarding on some level, and easy. Ideally, surprisingly so.

And yet, for many of us, the reality of our organizations is different. Internal systems, entrenched culture and behavioural habits all too often result in a service delivery or experience that is less than elegant or effortless.

Just think of the example of a bank losing a promising new hire on day one, after she is handed an onboarding binder to read, and informed her laptop is not ready. Lots of time, energy and effort went into the recruitment and selection of that person (and into the preparation of that binder), only to be undone by the experience of the first handful of hours.

We know from many of our speakers over the last six months that many HR functions would benefit greatly from a “design thinking” makeover, where we invest the time to see and experience our “products” through the eyes of our “consumers,” and make the necessary adjustments… and I would hazard a guess that while many of us have agreed intellectually that we “should get to that,” relatively few of us have taken a step in that direction. Finding the energy and the will for disruption and innovation is really hard.

So while we have unmet opportunities of our own for innovation within our own four walls, the even bigger challenge is how do we breed customer focus, agility, experimentation and curiosity into the DNA of our organizations? It goes far deeper than simply hiring people who think differently and are willing to challenge the current state; we have to prepare the culture and the “soil” into which they will be planted. Bernard Lebelle put it well when he referred to “corporate antibodies” that will kill and expel innovators unless innovation is in the DNA.

What is HR’s role in leading that shift in mindsets, to building more nimble and innovative organizations? Can it be HR-led, or does it need to be driven from the top?

Paul Pittman: Two things are certain in HR; we are prone to “flavour of the monthism.” The second is we are great innovators (no pun intended); we take old ideas and give them new names. That being said — and recognizing that external advisers have to wrap their offerings in new clothes — some great wisdom stemmed from this session.

I have had a career in “disruptovation,” with some challenging spots often requiring significant turnaround, and my first caution would be that disruption and innovation are not synonymous — there is often a need for blowing up the way things are done, and that’s different from creating new or reinventing old products and services.

These require a different skill set; black belts might be disruptors but probably are not innovators. In my experience, too, a discreet position designated “chief innovator” will be doomed to failure at most organizations as the organization (antibodies) will reject the transplant because it is disruptive.

I liked the recommendation of building an approach consistent with the evolutionary stage or culture of the organization — nothing wrong by starting with “curiosity.”

Knowing the outcome you want to achieve, and what the organization is blocking by staid thinking or comfort with current revenue levels, is critical. Inviting into the business a free roaming change agent with an open mandate allowed to run amok is a great recipe for destroying value and eviscerating engagement — no matter how moribund the current offering.

Innovation is not for everyone but disruption probably is, to a lesser or greater extent. A lot of private sector organizations talk about innovation but few really act on their thoughts and settle for disruption. Our panel, for example, comprises mostly consultants and an insurance company that has done what sounded like a wonderful job in accelerated evolution rather than innovation (after all, we’re talking actuaries here). They are, however, right to be concerned block chain technology will see off the brokering industry within a few years and must pose a grave threat to the insurance industry as we know it, and perhaps disruption leads to innovation.

Case studies were referenced but most in the context of exploring and not necessarily adopting innovation. Pushback from the audience perhaps also suggested concerns about the risks. The truth is that necessity is often the mother of invention.

The great innovation culture disasters were dismissed, but there are some important lessons to be learned from Blackberry, GE and Kodak, most notably about speed to change, perhaps. There are also lessons to be learned from companies that have effected large-scale disruption to change products through design thinking that did not credit new-age innovation. Disruptive teams have been used at organizations for decades.

The best advice came around hiring and nurturing disruptive-oriented people who, in the right environment and circumstances, can add significant value.

In summary: Know what you are targeting, don’t underestimate how much organizational preparation is required for disruptors to be successful and enable incumbents who, in my experience at least, are most likely to be successful if they come from inside.

Edmond Mellina: I’d like to go back to the notion of “corporate antibodies.” The intrapreneurs — innovative people who act like entrepreneurs at larger organizations — often refer to the much-maligned corporate immune system. It is a convenient way to explain why their brilliant idea didn’t get enough traction internally.

However, I think the real problem is elsewhere. If raw disruptors are great at startups, established organizations desperately need leaders who take a highly collaborative approach to disruption from within. I call these special talents the “co-disruptors.”

The problem is that effective co-disruptors are few and far between. To make matters worse, the good ones tend to be underleveraged. For example, they are assigned to roles in which they cannot fully work their magic.

Before blaming the corporate immune system, intrapreneurs should ask themselves: “To what extent have I been acting like a true co-disruptor?” If the answer is far from a resounding yes, then they should stop blaming the corporate antibodies and look at themselves in the mirror.

Having said that, even the best co-disruptive intrapreneurs cannot do it on their own. For them to succeed, we need other co-disruptors in the organization — particularly in four critical areas: the C-suite; all the innovation teams; the business units most at risk of digital disruption; and, finally, the board of directors itself.

Paul: I agree, Edmond. Humans need support systems to remain confident and to continue to be successful. The folks who are brave enough to stand in the way of accepted wisdom, resistance to change and organizational inertia are few and far between, and are probably running another company. Most mid-organization change agents need encouragement. HR can play an important role here.

Tracey White: You’ve hit the nail on the head, gentlemen. The operations of large corporations are set up to institutionalize routine. The goal is consistent, predictable, financial flows that can be reported to analysts in a way that ensures earnings reports have no surprises and shareholders have positive returns. 

New technologies have reinforced these operational systems, making them more predictable, faster and efficient. But now operations are brittle and unresponsive, focused on their own logic, so other stakeholders are left out in the cold. 

Think of the difficulties of the airline industry, where operations clearly trump customer satisfaction; we’ve all seen the videos. In business, generally, there has been a steady erosion of customer service as technology has “increased operational efficiency.”

Asking HR to hire the “right” people, no matter what skill is fashionable, is barking up the wrong tree. Disruptors, intrapreneurs, a bright new generation of millennial employees — none of these can fix problems that are inherently structural. Ultimately, seeking an HR solution will fail because of this basic misdiagnosis of the problem and an unwillingness to challenge it.

Latest stories