Making Waves: HR’s Critical Role in Kickstarting Change

The project plan was flashed on the screen.

The financial metrics were shared. Work steps were reviewed and analyzed for many months ahead. Yet, something big was missing. People.

A real change grows and takes hold because of many individuals – those who individually decide to get involved, contribute and share their ideas. And, there are those who will start their own smaller changes within the bigger strategy.

Yes, you need Wave Makers

Project plans are essential, yet a change isn’t like an action on your to do list, the normal process, or even an initiative. Change is messy and it isn’t sequential. It moves through people.

HR plays an essential role in making that movement through people happen.

I use the term “wave’” for an organic, sustainable change because it moves through individuals one by one growing as it goes. A wave isn’t one big presentation or event that flips the switch for everyone. Each person decides if they are in, will share with friends and bring their own ideas to the table.

If your organization is talking about innovation, change or transformation (and they are) you need more than the leadership team thinking about it and contributing. You need Wave Makers throughout the organization thinking “what if” and asking ‘what can I do?” even on a small scale.

Many important changes happen because one individual decided to take a very small first step and that started the dominoes.

Likewise, leaders can’t realize a change alone. Even the best leaders can’t have all of the answers. And, we know that cascading communications don’t work. They need help.

The right HR leaders can translate and play a key role(s) in making waves throughout the organization.

There are four important hats that HR can wear in making waves:

1. Change co-pilot

HR can advise leaders on adopting the new definition of change that relies less on the big group event and more on the involvement, participation and contribution of many.

Leaders often need coaching on listening as much as telling and asking not just “any questions?” but “what are your ideas?” HR can help leaders rely less on the traditional hierarchy and cascading approach and more on how to let workgroups closest to the problem and the business contribute and find the answer.

Helping other leaders make this shift in mindset isn’t easy. That is why it’s essential that HR professionals have exposure and confidence in new ideas and approaches even if through external examples and research.

It takes knowledge, influence and ideas to sit confidently in the co-pilot seat.

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2. Connector

A connector connects people who can help each other reach their goals. This is a valuable booster for helping a wave build momentum.

An HR professional can introduce the right sponsor to the new professional with great ideas for utilizing new media, help the Wave Maker obtain the funding needed for an experiment, or make sure that the team interested in new process ideas meets the external expert at the conference.

HR can be the one who actively looks for the connections that will further innovation, change or transformation on the ground floor and goes well beyond the big presentation on the new strategy.

3. Obstacle blocker 

As much as leaders preach innovation and change, we have systemic barriers inside organizations that conflict with those objectives. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Does your performance management process reward for efficiency and no experimentation? Or for individual success rather than team?
  • Is a failed experiment deadly? Is trying a new approach too risky for those who want to grow and advance in your organization?
  • Is succession based on years of experience and climbing the hierarchy rather than who has new ideas and fresh thinking?
  • Is compensation the same for the one with the new bold new idea and plan that worked as for the one who played it safe?
  • Is the status quo the preferred choice without a decision ever being made?

If you answered “yes” to even some of these questions, then you have an “opportunity,” as some would say, using performance management language! These are big opportunities to influence others, to experiment with a new approach and start the change.

You can’t expect employees and leaders to improve and innovate when the organization has set it up where not doing so has a more desirable outcome.

4. Wave Maker

HR professionals can start a wave just like anyone else. Just because you have an HR title doesn’t mean you are always the co-pilot, the support, the enabler. Start the changes that you know will make a difference for your team, the organization or the community.

The HR community is in a unique role to activate change, and waves, in your organization. We know that Wave Makers find the place to start even without all the answers. They are incrementalists.

As Brett Hurt, a Wave Maker and co-founder of Bazaarvoice, said, “Motion creates motion. Momentum creates momentum. Get going.

Grab at least one of your hats and get started.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consulting firm she founded in 2004. She is the author of newly released "Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life." Patti and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Previously a Senior Executive at Accenture. Patti is an instructor on change for SMU Executive Education and for the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative, as well as a keynote speaker on change and leadership.

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