Jeremy Gutsche: Exploiting Chaos, Embracing Culture
Calgary-born Jeremy Gutsche, MBA, CFA has his finger on the pulse of innovation. As the founder of Trendhunter.com and the award-winning author of Exploiting Chaos, he has been described as “a new breed of trend spotter” by The Guardian, “an eagle eye” by Global TV, an “oracle” by The Globe and Mail, and an “intellectual can of Red Bull” by Association Week. Equipped with a website that collects cutting edge trends and has attracted more than 840,000,000 views, his insights have already made him one of the most sought after keynote speakers in North America. Gutsche’s presentation at BC HRMA’s 50th Annual Conference and Tradeshow is a surefire catalyst for organizational change.
How has HR trended over the past decades? What do you view as the key evolution of HR in recent years?
I think the new role of the HR is one of culture manager. Culture has become extraordinarily more important. If you are with a company like Google, Apple, Red Bull or Trendhunter, culture is not passive, but extremely proactive.
Fifty years ago, traditional HR was fairly fundamental hiring and firing. Where things are shifting now is towards developing a culture of innovation and fostering that connection to the customer.
I think the key evolution is the realization that organizational culture trumps strategy. There is a quote that sits outside Ford’s strategy war room that says it best: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ It does not matter how brilliant your strategy is; it will break or succeed on the basis of how your organization gets things done. That comes down to culture and that brings us back to HR’s ability to create culture.
There are four ways I break down culture: perspective, failure, intentional destruction and customer obsession. One big role that HR plays is grounding an organization’s vision and bringing the mission into focus for a team. By encouraging people to experiment and destroying those aspects of the status quo that prevent innovation, HR creates a culture that understands more deeply what the customer wants. It also keeps the organization focused on the big picture.
What is driving the constant change that now defines the workplace?
I think the ubiquity of information created by the Internet has given us a glimpse into how the world works: what other companies are doing, what the opportunities are. On a whole, we are more mobile, more connected and share more knowledge. We have a wider view of what is out there and as a result, there is more competition to be that “Best Place to Work”.
HR teams compete to become that best place and, as a result, workplace culture is continually evolving. There is a lot of one-upmanship in the culture category.
We think of our own office at Trendhunter as a culture machine. At any given time, half of our 25 people are new; we set them up with a four month program that explores and explains the new social media. We call it ‘The Academy’ and everyone in it knows they are the heart and soul of Trendhunter. We have our Friday beer party where we shares personal and professional updates and once a month we go further with a fun day; that can be anything from improv to jet boating to Powerpoint karaoke. When the perks come into the office, we distribute those to the most junior as opposed to our senior editors.
These sorts of things are how organizations compete. It’s also how we manage to take away some great talent from stuffier companies – and we’re not the only ones. Smart HR is making it happen in all sorts of industries.
How can organizations adapt quickly enough to exploit chaos successfully?
The way I like to think of it is that we put in place rules and procedures to preserve the status quo. That works well when all is well. However, with the world pivoting chaotically, that status quo needs to go. Right now, we see that chaos within our economy, consumer mindsets and technologies. That status quo structure is not going to help; you need to intentionally destroy it to liberate the speed of an organization.
Back when I was with Capital One, we managed to grow a billion dollar portfolio, but the money wasn’t the coolest takeaway. Interest rates were skyrocketing, so we needed to reinvent how we approached the customer. That crisis situation raised a flag and demanded we reinvent, so we did. If we had not used that sense of urgency to cut through the red tape and force ourselves to reconnect with our customer, we would not have succeeded. I think that experience lends itself to other organizations.
These are chaotic times. We need to cut out a few steps to focus on what keeps us moving forward. I remember listening to a professor talk about car companies and what was the most important part of the business. The only thing that really mattered was the car. Despite all of the organizational policy, procedure and legal flags thrown up, the car was the only thing that really mattered. As consumers, we get that. Bringing that same focus to our own organizations is the opportunity.
(PeopleTalk: Spring 2012)