For more than a decade now, the fundamental challenge around driving real growth and value from innovation is tied to many companies low focus on organisational design and culture. The design of an organisation and more importantly, how its people contribute, places HR at the centre of the challenge.
Sometimes historically referred to as the ‘people police’, only providing value when people need to be hired, fired disciplined or appraised, HR is no longer the purely administrative function it has been labelled for decades. Instead, I’d argue that HR should viewed as the core enabler of the strategic push for innovation, especially where a culture of innovation is the desired future state.
The pandemic has served as a much-needed inflection point for every organisation on the planet and hopefully, the transformation in required business models resulting in a global shift in how we work has paved the way for leaders understanding how central to innovation, HR has become. To that end, in my recent article I suggested that all leaders should acknowledge that Employees (Humans) are NOT ‘resources’ and maybe it’s time we changed HR to HB. From the Human Resources Department to the Human Beings Department!
However, to be fair to HR, there are overt and subtle changes to the labelling already in place with People & Culture, People & Organisation Development and the overall shift to being called ‘The People Profession’ already playing out around the world.
Through the work we do at OUTCOME we continue to be inspired by the potential redesigned and repositioned HR teams can have on an organisation’s ability drive value and growth through innovation. Something Sympa’s 2022 The Future of Work report perfectly summed it up: “no functioning HR, no functioning people, no organisation.” 
Also, I have a huge amount of respect for leading people strategist Josh Bersin who I know is also a strong proponent of human-centred leadership. His 2022 Global HR Capability Project  revealed that “high-growth companies have HR teams that can partner with senior leaders, coach managers and executives, and have a deep understanding of the business’s operations.” Moreover, those HR departments promote skills such as learning, performance, communication and inclusion, all critical parameters for innovation.
So, let’s go back a few decades to understand why we are where we are. The modern construct of HR as we know it today was largely born post World War 2 so circa 1945 but it had already emerged earlier on in the 20th century, pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor who explored what he termed ‘scientific management’ as a way to improve economic efficiency in manufacturing jobs. The challenge is that it remained largely unchanged for decades. However, HR has evolved over the last twenty years and even more so over the last decade.
With innovation becoming a top strategic priority, and with the acknowledgement that organisations don’t innovate, people do, people are finally becoming the most important asset in every business and that means HR has become equally strategically important. What that means in practice is that HR has now moved from a focus on right person, right bus, right seat, to a focus on organisation-wide capability and fuelling the ability to move at speed, be agile, shift culture in response to a shifting world and of course, innovate. It’s about HR being front and centre when it comes to being a professional function capable of leading business transformation in order to shape the future.
So, when it comes to building a culture of innovation, how can contemporary HR teams lead organisations on the transformation journey from innovation theatre to innovation powerhouse? Well, there’s one controversial word that I use in almost every keynote to senior leadership audiences who want to talk about building a culture of innovation. LOVE! Yes, Love. Our core challenge when we need innovation as a company is building an ecosystem where innovation can thrive. That means we must create cultures where people want to come to work, where they are excited to come to work, where they are completely aligned and engaged with the company’s purpose and where they can contribute to the things that matter to them, especially innovation and solving problems for customers.
Translated another way, if we want innovation, we need our people to LOVE what we do, how we do it and why we do it!
One of the fundamental challenges I’ve recognised over the years is that HR typically has a long-term outlook. Recognising that attracting, developing, and retaining people isn’t a short-term exercise. However, business priorities or more accurately, leadership team priorities tend to be more fluid and short-term.
The focus on innovation over the past decade has forced many senior team to re-evaluate their strategic view from short-termism to long-term value creation, meaning greater alignment in the timeframes both leaders and HR work on.
Those timeframes or imperatives now largely revolve around an organisations ability to constantly remain relevant, drive growth and create value, hence, the strategic focus for most organisations now centres around building innovation capability and a culture of innovation. That has put HR front and centre and has given them their long overdue seat at the table.
So, what are some of the core areas where HR can help remove cultural barriers and supercharge an organisation’s ability to innovate? In my experience, these three perspectives have proved crucial.
Innovation is middle-out…
The first thing to recognise is how HR influences where innovation happens. The long-standing debate around “is innovation top-down or bottom-up?” for me is fundamentally flawed. It’s middle-out!
The typical barriers to innovation centre around authority and risk i.e., the opinions of people at the top are more important than those of people at the bottom. This kind of culture acts as a virus that attacks innovation as it disincentivises people at the bottom, regardless of how creative they are, from voicing an opinion and challenging the status quo.
“My greatest fear is to create fear in my companies.”
Chairman of VaynerX & CEO of VaynerMedia
The traditional approach suggests that to unleash bottom-up innovation, you need to neutralize this negative effect of hierarchy. But in my experience, the debate around bottom-up vs top-down polarises the problem. In-between both those layers, is the middle. Building a culture where contribution, exploratory inquiry, constructive dissent, exploration, and experimentation are part of the day-to-day is driven from the middle, predominantly by middle-managers. It’s middle-out! How HR coach leaders to manage that relationship is key.
Build, iterate and re-design…
The second thing HR can lead on is mirroring how the innovation process works. Teams working on innovation projects will by default, build assumptions and then experiment to validate those assumptions. Building new cultures should be no different. So, HR can prototype new approaches, leadership frameworks, ways-of-working etc. Working with small agile teams to build, iterate and re-design rather than going straight to implementing new arbitrarily designed practices. HR can, if it chooses to, be front-and-centre in creating collaborative, organisational design experiences that help embed innovation.
Measure what matters…
The third thing HR can own is the metrics around building a culture of innovation and how innovation positively affects other parts of the business, especially where you want to measure components that drive the behaviour you need. In essence, redesigning HR teams for future-fit organisations means also redesigning what you measure, how you measure and why you measure. Again, using the same approach as innovation itself, innovation metrics and measurements should serve the future not validate the past. They should serve to facilitate hypotheses about where to experiment and fundamentally, how to keep people at the centre of the innovation agenda. Measuring innovation maturity  is one of the key ways to do that as it focusses on measuring the combination of innovation capability and how embedded that capability is in organisational culture.
With SO many complex challenges, issues and anxieties, work itself is under the spotlight. With hard-to-hire specialisms, phenomena like the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting (how true they remains to be seen along with other trends like remote working and the experiments in the 4-day working week).
As we see it – and Economists like Marianna Mazzucato and Alex Edmans will also tell you – purpose, belonging and doing something of worth and value are not just perks. They are essential to all roles and at all levels.
Innovation, learning and bonding with your team go beyond engagement and into the sense of belonging. And linked to as noble a purpose as you can articulate about your enterprise. The Confederation of British Industries 2019 research  proved that purpose-led companies are not only better for the planet (less pollution, extract and more use of circular and regenerative ways of operating) they are also good for people AND profit (or in the case of the non-profit sector, sustainable performance).
And in that purpose, and HR helping to align and amplify that, lies the love for what you do, how you do it and who you do it with, and for.
To summarise, I’ll come full circle, back to the word love. To innovate as organisations, we must LOVE problems, and we must LOVE solving them. To facilitate that, our people need to LOVE what we do, how we do it and why we do it and HR are the architects of the culture that brings that alive on a day-to-day basis. The world is constantly evolving, creating ever more complex problems, aka wicked problems. The antidote to wicked problems is innovation but organisations don’t innovate, people do and that means HR is at the forefront of maintaining the innovation engine every organisation will need to be able to shape the future.
By Cris Beswick
With insightful contribution from my good friend and human-centred guru Perry Timms.
Perry is the Founder and Chief Energy Officer at PTHR, a Certified B Corporation. He’s a 2x Author, a 2x TEDx Speaker, a 4x Guest Professor, and has made it onto the HR Most Influential Thinkers List 5 times, making it to the No 1 spot in 2022.
This article was previously published on Outcome.