Lucy Adams
August 14, 2023
Reading time: 8 minutes
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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:

  • Do you hear yourself saying ‘but if we don’t make it mandatory, they won’t do it?’ And does that take you back to our traditional approach of making managers do things rather than starting with our early adopters and working with them to attract other managers to participate? Does that particular red flag stop you from asking ‘why are they not using this HR process? And maybe if we change it, they might find it more useful?
  • Do you find yourself thinking ‘but they won’t do it properly?’ and then creating lots of rules and prescriptive detail to make sure there’s no wriggle room? And does this prevent you from trusting people to use their judgement? Does this result in the HR team having to play the role of compliance officer, rather than coaching managers to build their capabilities?

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.

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