A Blueprint For Hiring and Building An Agile and Innovative Workforce

Organizations feel the pressure to innovate or risk losing market share to smaller, nimbler competitors. HR leaders are hiring new talent in hopes of rapid innovation gains around strategic priorities. Previously command and control cultures are seeking HR support to adopt Agile methodologies. New teams, structures and processes are introduced to encourage new ideas and increase speed to market, but all too often their outputs look the same. Under pressure to make a change, leaders are failing to consider the key elements underpinning innovation in an individual and team.

There are three common mistakes organizations make when attempting to foster innovation. HR leadership can help organizations avoid these oversights through their involvement in “buying” external talent and “building” the internal talent to develop the capacity to innovate.

3 mistakes in the quest for innovation

Mistake #1: Believing creativity alone equals innovation

Innovation is often confused with creative thinking, which is the ideation phase of innovation. Creative thinking involves imagining radical possibilities or generating original ideas. Using the terms interchangeably misrepresents innovation as a purely “thinking” capability, whereas being an innovative individual requires more than creative ideas. Innovation requires a creative starting point, but with other strengths such as the courage to pursue a proposition, the resilience to work through challenges and the ability to collaborate with others to make the idea a reality.

It is often assumed generating original ideas is an ability people are either born with or not. However, research tells us creative thinking requires curiosity and openness to seemingly unrelated ideas or experiences. Curiosity is evident in a leader’s ability to ask questions, seek new information and hear alternative views from their own. New information sparks networks in the brain to connect different concepts and ideas. Openness is associated with the initiative to partake in novel experiences that provide unexpected inspiration. Creativity also requires connecting different, and seemingly contradictory, information in a new way. Lastly, in an age where people are regularly confronted with a deluge of information, generating new thinking requires the ability to manage a tension between staying open to novel ideas, while focusing on data that is most relevant.

How HR leaders can avoid making this mistake

Buy: When recruiting for innovative talent, watch for bold claims of personal ownership of creative ideas on a CV. Look for multiple examples of different types of idea generation. Evaluate the individual’s ability to work with different data inputs, draw on multiple stakeholder perspectives and challenge assumptions. Once an idea has taken form, inquire how the candidate has gone about implementing the idea through collaboration and leveraging different skill sets to pilot, evolve and perfect. By taking the time to understand the steps leading to innovation, HR leaders will know if candidates have the right combination of skills to innovate within a new context.

Build: When building innovative muscle in the business, leadership programs are a great platform to leverage individual skills and align around creative thought. Experiential leadership programs work when they have a clear objective and set leaders up to have an experience that takes them out of their comfort zone, challenge their assumptions and re-evaluate their thinking paradigms. But it only works if HR follows up the experience with group or individual coaching to confront current working assumptions, distil lessons learned and identify practical applications.

For example, going on a leadership field trip to a different regional market to see how consumer trends are changing globally is unlikely to result in the leadership group changing their market strategy. To convert the change in thinking, they need to work through the insights the visit gave them, question the assumptions behind their current consumer strategy, form new working assumptions from which to develop their market approach, and then agree to what needs to change in their strategy going forward as a result of this learning experience.

Mistake #2: Thinking innovation sits within an individual

Innovation requires different, often oppositional, skills. Divergent thinking unlocks possibilities, but it needs to be balanced with convergent thinking to land on the one or two that have commercial or community value. Confidence to pursue an idea must be balanced with humility to integrate feedback to improve the proposition. Futuristic ideas need to be brought back to the present to identify implementation steps.

People have different preferences in the way they think and are motivated, which means individuals usually bring strengths around one side of these opposing tensions that drive innovation. While people can learn to work across these tensions, it takes time and significant practice to develop the skills that come less naturally to them, which is why innovation rarely sits with one individual.

Teams made up of diverse skills, thinking preferences and leadership styles can bring together these seemingly opposing motivations and perspectives. However, diversity of perspectives and expertise only leads to generative thinking when the diversity of experience and ideas is managed well. The Center for Talent Innovation found that employees in an inclusive team context are 3.5 times more likely to contribute innovative input. When two members of the team hold opposing values or views, settling on one of the perspectives is not the only solution. There is an opportunity to explore other ways of addressing the problem that combine the opposing values. The team must work together to find a new perspective. This process leads to an outcome with greater value or potential than any one perspective on its own.

How HR leaders can avoid making this mistake

Buy: When hiring a new team member, identify the complementary skills and mindset needed to work with the existing team. Don’t rely on the current profile of team members – instead work with the hiring business leader to map out the thinking preferences and change orientations of the existing team. Knowing what skills or preferences are missing within the existing team will spotlight the qualities HR should look for in candidates.

However, HR needs to work with the leader to ensure the team is bought into hiring for difference, so once a candidate is hired, everyone embraces the new thinking approach during the onboarding phase.

Build: When developing a team’s capacity to innovate, bring together individuals who represent the following opposing skills or perspectives:

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  • Present day pragmatism with future ideation
  • Divergent generation with convergent prioritization
  • Confidence to challenge the norm with openness to feedback
  • Desire to disrupt with desire to preserve.

Beyond gathering these disparate styles in the room, HR leaders need to draw out different perspectives so they can complement each other and increase the likelihood of developing innovative solutions to current challenges. Work with the group to build trust before they seek to innovate together. Research on psychological safety shows teams that create a climate of being open to ideas, questions or concerns without fear of criticism or blocking are more likely to innovate and are more committed to the organization.

Mistake #3: Assuming “Agile” terminology results in innovative outputs

Large, bureaucratic organizations recognize the need to be more agile to survive in a world of continuous change. Agile drives innovation by finding new ways to add value to customers. Following on from power of diversity within a team to unlock innovation, the power of agile working is its ability to bring out the best of competing dimensions:

  • Collaborative working with individual accountability
  • Divergent thinking with convergent implementation
  • Discipline with flexibility
  • Tolerance for failure with a drive to succeed

Many organizations bring Agile methods, tools and processes into cultures that emphasize one dimension over the others; however, they neglect to identify the significant cultural changes and shifts in mindsets needed to bring different skill sets together capable of optimizing the tools and processes. Or worse still, organizations use “Agile” terminology to label existing teams and processes, or a slightly altered version of the status quo, that do not accurately embrace the Agile working principles. Bringing Agile into an organization can increase innovation, but only if structural changes are supported by cultural change to embrace different mindsets.

How HR leaders can avoid making this mistake

Buy: When hiring leaders with experience innovating within agile cultures, evaluate whether candidates can lead cultural change in an organization early in its adoption of Agile. Leaders who have been successful in an established agile context may not have the transformational skills needed to move an organization toward this state. Ask the candidate for examples of leading effective change, getting buy-in to agile working and some of the tensions they have worked through in their previous organizations. Listen for the cultural element of leading change: The candidate demonstrates an understanding of what needs to be communicated and where focus should be, not just expertise in Agile process and tools.

Build: It can be tempting to pick up Agile processes or methodologies from articles, colleagues or connections in other organizations and apply them to target innovation around key challenges.

Agile can start in defined parts of the business and build out over time, but starting small does not mean overlooking the culture change that comes with new methodologies. HR leaders can identify some of the leadership or managerial assumptions that need to be challenged when introducing Agile team structures to their organizations. Partner with business leaders to identify the cultural behaviors that will need to shift to embrace Agile and identify where Agile practices or principles may already exist under different labels and could be expanded upon.

Fostering the mindsets and behaviors underpinning Agile are just as important, if not more important, than bringing in the methodologies. HR can help leaders drive the right interactions and culture that lead to innovation rather than just demanding innovation in a culture that may not foster creative thought, experimentation and iterative implementation.

Organizations are under pressure to innovate not just to future-proof their businesses, but to ensure relevance for today’s market. HR leaders play a crucial role in driving transformational change within organizations and fostering innovative cultures. Whether they choose to buy or build talent, they must ensure collaboration within and across teams of individuals whose skill sets complement and challenge one another. Diversity of perspective and talents, combined with a shared purpose and business objective, will ensure organizations achieve their desired future state.

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Shelley Winter is director and global head of executive coaching at YSC Consulting, an independent consultancy that helps organizations understand whether they have the leadership needed to achieve their future strategies. www.ysc.com

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