When you’re in an operational HR role, creating the head space to re-think your approach can be really hard. I remember having back-to-back meetings, then getting to the end of the day and thinking – ‘right, now I need to have some BIG thoughts about the future’ – but choosing to go home and watch The West Wing instead! And yet, if we are going to equip our organisation, our leaders and our employees for a disrupted world, then we have to find a way of adding different stimuli and challenging our thinking.

Based on conversations with progressive HR professionals and what has worked for me – Here are some tips on how we can change our thinking in HR.

Focus on the human – not the process

I think we limit our thinking by setting very narrow parameters for what we’re trying to achieve. We want to innovate, but we often set our goal as being the reform of an existing process. This immediately restricts our creativity and results in small, incremental changes rather than the fundamental change we need. So, for example, we often get asked to help clients change their performance management system. There are two key assumptions that are immediately built into the activity – that performance can be ‘managed’ and that they need a system to do it. Not much innovation is going to result. Instead, you can try to broaden the challenge you’re undertaking – by focusing on the human – not the process – problem that you want to solve. So instead of changing the performance management system – ask yourselves ‘how can we enable people to improve their performance?’ Or ‘how can we enable people to be even better at their jobs?’

Widen your sources of stimulation

So, a small confession – when we created Disruptive HR we imagined that all we would need to do is to steal all the innovative ideas from our HR connections with Silicon Valley tech firms! Sadly, when it came down to it – there weren’t many genuinely fresh approaches to steal! So, we had to start from scratch. We found that the best ideas came – not from HR conferences, books and articles – but from adapting ideas from other disciplines. So, we went to conferences on behavioural science, we read books on psychology, we spoke to experts in marketing and advertising, we learned from agile product design. We widened our sources of stimulation. If we just listen to people like us or borrow from so-called best practice, we again limit our ability to be truly innovative. How could you widen your sources of stimulation? Could you invite your marketing colleagues to help you think through your employee experience? Could you learn from your digital colleagues how to move at pace through application of approaches such MVP or sprint planning? Could you broaden the subject matter of the books and articles you read? Could you attend conferences on topics other than HR? Chances are that these efforts will stimulate your thinking in ways that traditional L&D for HR can’t match. 

Identify your red flags

Looking back to my time as an HR Director, I had a number of beliefs that prevented me from being braver and more innovative. My assumptions about the leaders, the employees, my team and even the way HR ‘should be done’ would result in me repeating traditional approaches. We all have these assumptions and beliefs but if we can see them as ‘red flags’ – signs that we are about to make the same mistakes, we can start to challenge them.

Maybe you hold beliefs that prevent you from changing the way you think – for example:

So, if we widen our sources of stimulation, focus on the human challenge – not the process one and challenge our personal red flags, then we have a chance to genuinely build fresh thinking in HR.

We’ve all been there. You approach a leader hoping to persuade them to adopt a new HR approach that, in your view, is a complete no-brainer – and you get hit with the line ‘show me the data’. I wonder how many hours we have wasted trying to provide enough proof, to find the research, to give the data that will convince them. I say ‘wasted’ because when it comes to providing hard people data as proof – we can’t, and we shouldn’t. I realise this maybe sounds a bit provocative and against the trend towards HR having a better arsenal of data to work with. But hopefully I can make the case that sometimes data is not what we need to make our case for change.

It’s hard to find data that ‘proves’ anything

In HR, we deal with people’s behaviours, emotions, and relationships, which are of course, subjective and, unlike perhaps Finance, involve different viewpoints and interpretations This in turn makes it hard to find objective proof for things like employee performance, attitudes, or whether someone is the right culture fit. This is especially true in a knowledge economy where so many of our people produce outputs that are hard to quantify and evaluate objectively.

People’s behaviour is influenced by many factors like their beliefs, their upbringing, their physical and mental health, and social dynamics. It’s tough to prove that what we do in HR will cause changes in employee behaviour or performance because there are so many other influences at play.

The data we do provide tends to be too aggregated to be meaningful, such as our engagement scores, lacks context, as with churn rates and D&I stats, or it’s based on a manager’s judgement and therefore subject to rater bias.

Data is not going to make our case for change

And yet, we still feel pressurised to try to give our leaders what they say they need to be convinced. We load them up with benchmarking ratios, research and competitor case studies. But should we? When we’re asked by clients to help them convince their stakeholders with research and data, we will often tell them not to bother! Because even the most compelling data is unlikely to provide enough evidence to change their minds and behaviour.

There are two key reasons for this; the first is that in my experience, they don’t really want or need data. They are actually having an emotional reaction to the changes we’re proposing not an intellectual one. Facts and figures aren’t addressing their real and underlying concerns with the changes, such as ‘why should I change the leadership habits that I have been doing for years and with which I am comfortable, for something new?’ or ‘there’s a risk that I can’t do this new approach and I might look foolish’ or ‘I don’t really want to get more engaged with my team, it’s just easier to do the current annual process’. Data won’t help with these fears. Data won’t build confidence. Data won’t make a poor people manager into a good one. When we give them the data they are asking for, we are not tackling the real barrier to change.

Secondly, they are unlikely to believe the data anyway! If we don’t address their fears or lack of confidence – or recognise that they don’t actually want to be better at the people stuff, they will simply disregard the evidence. How many times have you got into a debate with a leader about where the data comes from, how big is the sample size, etc? They nit-pick about the validity of the figures and totally ignore the fact that what we’re doing today in areas such as performance management or D&I are not working. Confirmation bias is something we need to accept and accommodate.

So, we have to answer a different question. It’s not so much ‘how can I prove it to them?’ but ‘why should they WANT to change? Why would they want to change their habits, try something new that might be a bit uncomfortable at first or challenge the way they have always thought? If we can’t answer these questions, we will be on a relentless pursuit of data that isn’t going to change their minds and, given that it’s not that robust anyway, probably shouldn’t!

Once we can get under the skin of our resistors, we can start to provide insights, support and challenge in a meaningful way. Once we truly understand what is stopping them from changing – be it fear, lack of interest or time pressures, we can work to persuade them. We can use a couple of interesting, stand out pieces of data that might make them sit up and be curious. We can use insights and qualitative data more often to help create a story that engages them on a more emotional level. We can craft the messaging for each type of resistance to reassure them and build their confidence, to tap into what matters to them. We can coax them to try one small aspect to get them going in a way that doesn’t eat into their busy schedule. It’s all about persuasion not finding proof.

Why do businesses have an obsession with big being better? We tend to favour large transformation programmes when we want to change behaviour. These huge projects are always difficult and scary for everyone and encourage our chimp brains to kick in with fearful thoughts. If we want people to change willingly, we have to shrink the size of the challenge they face.

If we can find a way to make something seem small or even temporary, we’ll find it easier to persuade people to do it. This is the thinking behind the technique called the ‘Five Minute Room Rescue’ by home-organising guru Marla Cilley. When cleaning the entire house seems like such a mountainous task we decide not to bother, so she suggests setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and just tackle the worst room. When the buzzer goes, you stop. This taps into the notion that getting going is often the hardest part of change because it feels so daunting, but that anyone can accomplish something useful in five minutes and try it again the next day. Our confidence grows as we discover it’s not so difficult after all, and we want to do more of it.

We can use this in HR when we want people to change their habits. Instead of asking leaders to have ongoing conversations with their staff each day, we could suggest they have one weekly five-minute conversation with a couple of their people by their desk or over Teams, and to comment on one good thing that week. Just one five-minute conversation, and one comment — give it a go.

Instead of the standard nine box grid accompanied by endless calibration discussions, Western Union asked clusters of managers to come together for an hour a month to talk about the talent in their teams. It shrunk an industrial-scale task into a human-sized one.

This technique of bite-size being more impactful is being seen more and more in L&D too. Instead of a full day’s training of which our brains will forget 80 percent in a month – we’re seeing short videos or mini-sessions – Telefonica call them ‘learning shots’!

Or in Diversity and Inclusion where, instead of the big training programme or campaign, we’re seeing a greater focus on great conversations – like at Go Daddy where they talk about micro exclusions and micro inclusions. Leaders have conversations with their teams where they ask questions like ‘what’s the one thing I could do to help you to feel more included and valued?’ One small habit that they might change – much less intimidating than a big D&I initiative with tons of activities.

Another way of minimising a challenge is to break it down into staged tasks. The educational technique of ‘scaffolding’ takes this approach. It states that, instead of assuming teachers need to teach something sizeable such as how to do algebra in one go, they take the end point and break it down into chunks. Each chunk involves learning something new but messing up one of them won’t put the learner off doing the rest of it. For instance, if you were to try to hold line managers responsible for making pay and bonus decisions rather than it being controlled centrally in HR, this would be a terrifying prospect for most leaders because they’d assume managers would bust the salary budget in no time. However, your starting point in HR could be that instead of not implementing this change for fear of its causing problems, you could do it in stages like this:

  1. Ask the managers to carry out a theoretical exercise on how they would go about the task. Give feedback to help them.
  2. Feed in some example tricky situations and discuss how they’d respond.
  3. Let them try it with the lowest risk elements of their team, and to reflect with you afterwards on how it went.
  4. Keep doing this until you have them off their water wings and swimming independently.

This might sound time consuming, but how many hours do you spend carrying out the annual pay review at the moment? With scaffolding, you protect people from making huge mistakes and losing their confidence, creating ways for them to practise and improve.

So, why not take a look at the way you deliver HR – and swap big campaigns, initiatives or the dreaded HR transformation programmes for small, bite-sized activities that appeal to busy managers and can help build their confidence in trying something new?

When we started Disruptive HR seven years ago, even having the words ‘Disruptive’ and ‘HR’ together in our company name raised eyebrows. Now, our name isn’t so much of a provocation. It’s more a statement of fact! HR is disrupting – sometimes with rapid speed – often very slowly – but it’s happening!  It is so great to see the increased appetite for change. The continued increase in business challenges such as digitisation, plus major global events such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have combined to prompt even the most traditional to think ‘Maybe it IS time to do something different in how we lead and engage our people?’

We are seeing bold and ambitious people plans. And we’re seeing business leaders making greater demands of their HR colleagues. But are we ready for this increased appetite? When we look at the team around us who will take on these challenges to do HR differently – are we confident that they have the skills, the mindsets, the experiences and the relationships to make it happen?

If we’re not confident in their change readiness, then it won’t matter how ambitious our plans are, we won’t be able to deliver. So how can we check our team’s change readiness? I think we need to assess it against 5 criteria:




Relationships and


Let’s break this down a bit.


It’s not enough to actually have the skills and abilities to deliver – we need our leaders to believe that we can. Sadly, I still meet plenty of leaders who don’t see their HR business partners as having the wherewithal to deliver significant change. Their perception of us as ‘order takers’ for their people needs remains a problem. Ask yourself whether your team has a voice that’s heard and valued. Are you and your team seen as an essential part of strategic decision making? Do they genuinely want us at the important meetings because of our strategic insights – and not just for the potential employment legalities?


One way of checking whether your team has a change ready attitude is to ask yourself, ‘how do my team get their sense of the value they add?’ Do they like providing a service to others, for example? Do they quite enjoy the power of being the HR compliance officer? Do they see their role as being about protecting employees from managers who can’t cut it?’ If you’re answering YES to any or all of these, you might have a problem. Change ready HR teams get their sense of value from creating the conditions where leaders and employees do their best work, not from a traditional caring parent or critical parental relationship.


Do your HR team really only excel in employee relations and employment policy? Yes? It’s not going to be enough! A change ready HR team needs to have a blend of skills in disciplines such as marketing, agile product design and behavioural science. If not, we risk trying to deliver the same old stuff in the same old ways.


How tight is your team? Have they managed to overcome the traditional silos of Centres of Expertise and Business Partnering to work together on shared priorities? Are they comfortable challenging each other? Or do your team meetings comprise a series of ‘show and tells’ from each department, whilst their colleagues sit scrolling on their phones? And how about their relationships outside the team? Do they REALLY know the business and understand how the people agenda drives the commercials? Do they have impactful relationships with key stakeholders and understand how different HR products will land in their area? Do they have a strong range of connections outside of HR and the organisation – to bring outside intelligence in? Change is a team sport, and you’ll need these relationships if you’re going to succeed.


And finally, how resilient are they? Embarking on significant change is not for the feint hearted. Will they be able to hold firm when the inevitable setbacks occur? Are they flexible enough to adapt their approaches and ideas if they seem to be facing a block in the road? Do they believe, deep down, that change has to happen – and not just telling what you want to hear? Above all, are they confident? Will they back themselves against the resistors and find agile ways of working round them to achieve the goals you’ve set yourselves. More than anything, you need them to believe in what you’re doing – and themselves as being ready to take on the change.

If you want to check out the change readiness of your HR team, why not check out the HR Team Change Readiness Diagnostic here

Of course, you’ve all been making change happen regularly, particularly in the last two years. But how can we do it differently? How can we make HR change run more smoothly and have an impact that sustains? Now obviously, this is a huge topic, but I’m going to look at four change management essentials that I believe it’s worth thinking about.

First up is how you design the change. I deliberately use the word ‘design’ rather than ‘plan’, because when it comes to change, we need the mindset of product designers. Planning change is quite old-school. You remember the detailed project sheets we used to have? The Gantt charts – with a beginning, a middle and an end – with changes mapped out sequentially – and behavioural change plotted for 9 months later after a period of training programmes.

Of course, change isn’t like that is it? The new approach to change design is all about being led by insights into our end-users or leaders and employees. It’s about designing around employee persona – the clusters of different motivations and fears that exist within your organisation. Change design is about deploying agile design techniques such as MVP, sprint planning, early adopters and co-creation. If you’ve got a detailed two year change management plan, you might need to rip it up and approach it from a change design perspective instead!

Next up for change management essentials is thinking about how you’re are going to persuade people to be open to the change.

No matter how many times say this is important, we tend to focus on the mechanics of change rather than the psychology. I’m not saying we need to get degrees in psychiatry, but HR does need to re-claim our role as the human experts. Persuasion is not about presenting a logical business case and then training people in new skills. Persuasion is about:

  • Understanding people’s resistance to change and working with that
  • Creating an environment of psychological safety for people to try new things
  • Making the changes required seem really small so that they are less off-putting
  • Finding the right influencers who can help you build change momentum – peer to peer

The third change essential is creating behavioural shifts – changing habits, helping new behaviours become the norm – again, a totally neglected area of HR in my opinion. However, I know that many of you are already starting to use techniques like nudging to good effect. But there are others too that work really well – like re-framing – where you help people look at an issue through a different lens. These behavioural change techniques need to be part of every HR professional’s toolkit.

Finally, the fourth essential is marketing the change. Not communicating the change – marketing it, selling it. We have to adopt marketing techniques if we’re going to make it happen and stick. We have to rethink the language we use, the way we brand or name our new products. We can use techniques like permission marketing or content marketing to build and engage our audience. And we need to build critical mass and momentum through working first with the ones who might be up for something different. We cannot force people to change so we are better off ignoring the biggest resistors and focusing on where we can get some traction.

So, in summary, new change management is about using new design techniques, investing time and skill on persuading people to change their behaviour and marketing and selling it effectively.