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Jan 16, 2013

Innovation” is as common and as empty a value as “customer first” and “excellence” in most organizations. And it can be particularly empty in our HR world.

The problem, put bluntly, is this: if HR Innovation was fighting the Status Quo in an extreme sports cage match, you’d bet heavily against HR Innovation getting much beyond the opening bell.

Yet this is something we all need to master. As a busy and ambitious HR professional, you can’t afford for innovation to stay in the realm of marketing or new product development.

Innovation is something that  constantly needs to be in the mix as you and your team strive to have more impact and do more of the stuff that matters. How do we do things more boldly? More efficiently? Smarter? All of these are innovation questions

So if you’re going to don the Mexican wrestling mask of innovation, you’ll find it useful to know these four contractions of innovation.

1. Service & Selfish

The starting point for innovation has often been to get close to understanding consumer needs. In my own innovation career, I spent many many days and nights running focus groups figuring out just what made people tick. And, certainly being grounded in a need you’re serving creates focus and purpose.

But in the HR world, many of us are a little burnt out with “serving others.” With so much going on, there’s only so far that altruism will take you. You need some of the resilience you get from selfishness, too. Whatever you’re working on to innovate has got to have some sort of cool factor that lights you up. This is a project that you need to be excited by.

2. Purpose & Pivot

Flowing from that sense of service – who does this help? – is often a clear purpose, an outcome you’re working towards as you seek to answer that need.

But as with business plans) it’s a good guess that the first outcome you have in mind won’t be the final outcome. Part of the art of sustaining your innovation is a willingness to see a new opportunity and pivot to pursue it. Sometimes when you get to a peak, you discover it’s just a plateau that reveals a new path and a new peak.

3. Murder & Marinate

Let’s say that new path appears. What do you do with the old plans?

One of the disciplines of innovation is the willingness to say “No.” It’s what Nilofer Merchant calls “murderboarding” in her book The New How. And certainly that is a crucial discipline to staying focused on the innovations that might have the best chance of making a difference.

But there’s a middle ground between giving them a “Yes” or a “No” and it’s called “Not Quite Now.” Putting your idea or prototype or change of plans away in a drawer for a month or three or six can do wonders. If you’re like me, you often forget about it so discovering it again is a pleasant surprise. And when you do uncover it again, it may have a new relevance or resonance.

4. Contain & Contaminate

You want to contain your forces, corral your energy and create boundaries and goals for your innovation. Focus is essential, and it’s too easy to get distracted otherwise.

But seal yourself away too tightly in your HR ghetto and not only might you miss out on outside influences and inspirations that may well improve your innovation, but you might just as importantly miss the opportunity to inspire and contaminate others with your fine ideas.

Over to F. Scott Fitzgerald …

… who said, “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” Neither of the choices I present in these four contractions is the right answer … so long as you make a choice. What you don’t want is to be caught in the “timid middle” (see video below) of neither this not that.

So what are you working on with your HR world that could do with a little innovation magic? And what choices will you make to keep it going and help it succeed?

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