Slow Times Create Opportunities to Innovate

By Ed Bernacki

There is little doubt that all organizations will face challenges new to them in 2009 and beyond. We are a generation which has not experienced the hardships of a deep recession. Who could have ever imagined that governments would bail out banks and insurance companies?

As with so many challenges, we must think our way forward to solve them. What if we treat this as an opportunity for HR to help organizations be more innovative? The focus may not be new products and services. It may be to reinvent the organization or parts that do not work well.

The goal is to help those managing people to be as effective as possible. This means designing jobs and structures that use people’s skills and expertise to create value. At a personal level it’s about helping staff to improve how they solve problems and deal with change.

Consider how traditional manufacturers create new ideas: they invest in ‘Research and Development’ (R&D) to innovate. If manufacturers invest in ‘R&D’, what do service organizations invest in to innovate? Sadly the answer for many is very little. I am not suggesting hiring new people. Rather, focus on using your resources to create opportunities to brainstorm ways to work together more effectively. A slow-down can be the ideal time to use extra time people may have in a productive way. Harness it to create a greater capacity to innovate.

I make a distinction between two types of ‘innovation’ which all organizations need:

1. Tangible innovations: the business of the business

The tangible assets of your organizations are the services and products you produce. This is the traditional focus of innovation and it is often supported by R&D. We know the classic story of engineers looking to create a new type of dishwasher while in a room filled with two-drawer filing cabinets. It led to an‘aha’ moment for an engineer. The Fisher and Paykel drawer dishwasher was the result.

2. Intangible innovations: the business of working together effectively

The second area is intangible: the internal processes, structures and strategies of an organization for its people to work together to deliver its products or services. It is demonstrated by the capacity of people to solve problems, make decisions, deal with change, communicate effectively, and collaborate. It is measured by productivity and led by HR. Sadly this area is often trivialized by labels such as the ‘soft stuff’. Regardless, I believe it represents the ideal target for HR managers. Design initiatives to help people work together more effectively.

The goal is to grow your capacity to innovate. To do so, consider three strategies:

1. Create opportunities for people to innovate

For HR to lead, begin by answering these questions:

  • Where does the organization need new ideas to become more successful? (This takes a frank discussion to defi ne the challenges facing an organization and to communicate these. I see little value in asking staff for ideas that are not directed on the big challenges of the day.)
  • What resources can you harness in some way to focus on these challenges?
  • If the business is slowing down, how much time could people contribute to generate solutions to challenges?
  • Could regular staff meetings include problem solving sessions?
  • Can you engage people who do not normally work together?

If you are considering canceling a staff conference, perhaps change its focus from ‘reward and recognition’ to ‘solving our challenges’. What if you host weekly or bi-weekly problem solving meetings? Pick a monthly ‘business challenge’ to create a theme for team meetings. In my first job, we started weekly idea meetings with no set agenda. It was a time to discuss ideas to improve our services and to brainstorm services we could provide. Creating the meeting also created an expectation that ideas would be generated.

2. Give people new skills to be innovative in their thinking

Saying you are open to new ideas is a start. Give people some new skills to prompt conversations, problem solving and collaboration. The skills can be basic as brainstorming with some tools for improving two core skills:

· Problem solving

· Dealing with change

You can engage outside trainers or buy books like Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’. Teach this simple yet effective tool to develop stronger ideas to solve problems. There is no shortage of tools to use in team meetings to improve the effectiveness of problem solving. When Alex Osborn conceived brainstorming in the 1930s, he assumed that people would be trained in basic problem solving before they could harness their brains to storm through a problem. His book was called, ‘Applied Imagination’. Tools help people to apply their imagination in more structured ways to solve problems more effectively.

3. Recognise problem solving diversity

This is an ideal time to harness your cognitive diversity. Different challenges need different thinking styles. I showed a cartoon to capture two ends of a thinking-style continuum. One character said, “Question everything!” while the other asked, “Why?” Those who question everything are well suited to solve challenges that have never been solved before. It needs a totally new approach. In fact, these innovators love the challenge of creating something new. Brief them on the challenge and get out of the way. Those who ask ‘why’ are more adaptive and structured in their thinking. Their forte is finding ideas to improve the current solution. Harness this expertise for challenges that need new disciplines, structures or organization. Be prepared to provide thorough and detailed instruction (as they will ask for it). Your organization needs both types of expertise and already has it. Recognize the people who think differently and focus on them.

The potential for HR innovation in action

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tackled this challenge by creating a ‘HR Process Lab’. It’s a virtual laboratory to enable more creativity in Human Resources management. Just like an ‘R&D’ lab, it is a structured environment where experiments take place under controlled conditions, and where brainstorming and the generation of new ideas can take place. There are two main components of the HR Process Lab. Each is aimed at balancing the need to identify both day-to-day process improvements and to resolve systemic, longer term issues. They are:

· Innovation Experiments: Managers can try new ways of carrying out HR actions, for example in staffing, recruitment, or learning. HR advisors provide advice to managers so they know the risks, pros and cons of their options. Managers must act within their delegated authority, and must uphold laws, collective agreements and values. Afterward, they report what they did (in the form of a lab report) to show what was learned.

· Invention Sessions: These are opportunities for diverse groups of people to brainstorm new ideas for HR management and to bring them to action. Ideas are shared so that best practices can be used by others and to further an innovative culture.

While the HR Process Lab is still in its first year, it sends a signal to staff that ideas are needed and welcomed. To create programmes like this shifts HR into new areas. By doing so, you begin to earn the title of ‘change agent’. Consider the implications for internal communications that engage managers and employees in these initiatives.

Develop and then co-ordinate a type of innovation or ideas programme to nurture a culture of continual improvement and innovative solutions. Use your insights to understand the cultural and technical foundations that support them. This takes ‘thinking outside the box’ and the business acumen to identify where energy is best spent.

To facilitate change does not mean you need to have the answers; it means you have to defi ne the questions and create the opportunities for them to be solved. Give staff the right questions and challenges and perhaps some new tools for brainstorming solutions to solve them.

The challenges of 2009 will be immense. HR should take the lead role to use people’s time and skills to help solve them. People will be motivated. They see the challenges too. Their job could depend on it.

Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.” No one understands this adage better than Ed Bernacki. As a speaker, writer and consultant on the use of innovative thinking and creativity in business, Bernacki shares his perspectives with business owners, associations and executives to create innovative opportunities and solutions to business challenges. He now delivers workshops and presentations in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He believes that many great ideas already exist in our organizations but that they do not have the skills and systems to find, develop and act on these ideas. Visit


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