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Innovation or Repetition: The Cyclicality of HR Practices

Posted by Elaine Varelas  June 1, 2009 08:24 AM

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Innovation or Repetition: The Cyclicality of HR Practices
By Elaine Varelas, June 1, 2009

If you’ve found yourself avoiding the nightly news and averting your eyes from the daily headlines, you are not alone. Yes, the economic forecast is dire, and we are being bombarded with messages of doom and gloom. Unfortunately, we can’t beam ourselves into the future, post-recession, where everyone is happily employed and making money again. We have to live through the downturn until the economy picks up.

If you can’t take one more ounce of bad news about the economy, here is a glimmer of hope: desperation can breed ingenuity. Some of the best ideas have come at the most hopeless times. In fact, many of America’s most famous products were invented during the Great Depression. Scotch tape, baby food, Polaroid pictures, and chocolate chip cookies were all conceived during an era when there wasn’t money to pour into R&D, focus groups, or pilot programs. The good news is that despite the ominous economic predictions—or maybe because of them—we get creative.

What innovations will come out of this recession? What advances will happen at your company? Take a look at your organization’s HR strategies and practices. How are they determined? At many organizations, programs and services are cut or added depending on availability of funds. While this is sometimes unavoidable, basing business decisions solely on cash flow creates a more reactionary approach to planning. It doesn’t allow for vision, inspiration, or a long-term view. The uncertain economy may be forcing companies to make some tough decisions, but it is important that organizations not just have a knee-jerk reaction to economic forces. This is not the first time we’ve weathered a recession and it won’t be the last. The ebb and flow of the economic cycle is a natural part of business.

When it comes to planning and strategy, many of us get stuck in a rut. We do something one way because we’ve always done it that way. Or we flip back and forth between what we’re doing now, and what we did in the past (centralize then decentralize; outsource and then back in-house; report to HR, then report to the business unit). While there are important lessons to be learned from the past, recycling an old method to address a new challenge may not always be the best option.

If the current way isn’t working and the old way isn’t much better, there must be room for fresh ideas. How can organizations discover what that new way will be? If necessity is the mother of invention, we should be seeing some whoppers of inventions these days! Never before have we needed to be more efficient by finding ways to cut costs while providing exceptional service, and doing more with fewer resources. What widget will help us do what we do better?

If ingenuity and creative thinking are the ways to gain a competitive edge in a stilted economy, how does your organization fare? Is there room in the organization for innovation? Are ideas (even seemingly outlandish or impossible ones) rewarded or squashed? Are people encouraged to think differently? Or do people get stones thrown at them for suggesting a new way? It may be the unconventional or counterintuitive idea that will be the breakthrough strategy for an organization to get ahead. HR managers should look at their teams and systems for evidence of this kind of creativity, and continuous improvement. They also need to look to the leadership team. Does leadership foster an environment where new ideas are welcomed and rewarded?

Sometimes innovation happens by trial and error. Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie, ran out of bakers chocolate for her recipe and substituted a chopped-up semi sweet chocolate bar. It didn’t melt like it’s chocolate cousin, and one of America’s favorite sweet treats was born. Are your employees encouraged to take chances and try new ways of doing things?

It can be risky to encourage innovation, especially when resources are tight. It is important to step out of the current crisis and look ahead. What may be a short-term loss could prove profitable over time. By fostering an environment where innovation is encouraged, you organization’s HR function can help promote success today and in the future.

Most of us can’t imagine wrapping a gift without scotch tape or feeding an infant without jarred baby food. We take these inventions for granted. The advances of today will also become ingrained in our everyday lives. What will that invention be at your company? Is your organization ready for the next new big idea? When we make room for and encourage creative thinking, innovation happens.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.