How HR kills innovation in HR

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From our strategic partner CoachingOurselves, provocative musings on the impact of HR.

How HR kills innovation in HR

by Philip LeNir, co-authored with David Creelman

“Whatever you do, please don’t mention this to anyone in HR, they will kill it”.

That quote may sound odd but it is real. The ‘it’ being kept secret from HR is an innovative learning program. I am sure the same thing happens with all sorts of HR innovations, not just learning. When HR hears about a manager who is doing things a little bit differently their first reaction is to want to kill it outright or wrap it in a deadly python of bureaucracy.
One client spent two or three hours on cross-continent video conference calls trying to decide if they would try one experimental 90 minute learning sessionAnother leader reported he was going to have to write a business case to justify spending $1,500 to continue a small leadership development pilot program.
The literature on innovation recognizes the value of small experiments; but even though HR tends to be aware of this kind fact, they tend to treat experiments with extreme distaste.  There are good reasons for this, as well as bad ones, and these need to be disentangled before we can get to the meat of how to improve innovation in HR.
The obvious bad reason is simply that HR wants to protect its turf; if it’s an HR related effort they want to control it and any associated budget. This is however linked to a good reason which is that organizations don’t want managers running off doing things that are risky or ill-considered.
We often see the same thing in IT. Managers may have experienced the wrath of IT when they try to bring in a Mac into an organization that has standardized on PCs. There are both good and bad reasons for IT’s inflexibility. They need to prevent any actions that would undermine the security of their system and also they need to protect themselves from the user demands that can arise when someone has an incompatible hardware setup. They may also just be difficult for the sake of being difficult. But the right steps are relatively clear.  A good IT department will look at the issue, assess the risks, see if there are reasonable steps to mitigate the risk, and if it makes sense then allow the user to go ahead with the non-standard system.
Yet HR does not seem to have this risk assessment / risk mitigation mindset. There are several reasons for this.  One is that many HR professionals grow up in a quasi-legal world where their job is all about ensuring the organization does not fall foul of labor laws. This, along with their frequent role as the policy police, have led them to get used to saying “No you can’t do that!” instead of working as a partner to determine the best thing to do. Another reason is that historically HR has championed enterprise-wide programs; if there is on-boarding then it will be for everyone, not just for a critical subset of jobs. If there is a dress code, it applies to all, even if it’s only needed in customer facing roles. When HR sees an innovation they immediately think in terms of an enterprise-wide roll out, which is expensive, risky and time consuming—all in all better put to death than permitted.
So we need a radically new mindset in HR. They need to encourage managers to experiment and simply provide a limited overview to ensure that there are no undue risks. When the cost of the experiment is less than the cost of the business case they should cheer on the manager to go ahead and try it out. When experiments don’t work HR can draw useful lessons. Where experiments do work HR can consider applying the approach to other areas of the organization. But you don’t get to learn from failed experiments or build on successful experiments if you kill experiments before they can begin.
HR often suffers from a bad reputation. They are seen to get in the way of the business rather than help it along. HR can go a long way in building rapport with managers if it encourages them to experiment with things they think might work, providing only enough support to ensure there are no uncontained risks. This will lead to rapid learning, happier managers and a better loved HR function.

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