Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hal Gregersen: How can HR drive innovation?


   The first session at Boussias Conferences’ People Management seminar in Athens has been given by Hal Gregersen from INSEAD (I’m on last!).

Hal explained that the Innovator’s DNA is based on the following activities:



David Neleman, the founder of JetBlue explains that innovation comes from looking at a process or practice that has been in place for a long, long time and asking ‘Why don’t they do it this other way?’ (this is what I’ll be suggesting re performance management in my session later on today).

We need to ask more questions that impose constraints - ‘What if we were legally prohibited from conducting any future business with our current set of customers?’ or that eliminate constraints – ‘What if resources were no challenge?’.

So, if you’re trying to get new ideas / solutions but are getting stuck, just go and ask different questions about the problem (without worry about providing answers).



Innovation begins by intensely observing the world around us on a regular basis – gaining insight from customers, products, services and technologies in order to develop ideas about new ways of doing things.



Innovation also requires experimentation – the more experiments we do, the greater the opportunity for innovation.



We need to network with other people who see the world differently from us in order to bridge structural holes (see my Social Advantage blog for more ideas on how we do this).

This could include people from different organisation, different industries, different countries of origin, different political viewpoints, people who are 30 years older / younger etc.

It’s why Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay says he talks to the person in the mailroom rather than the CEO when he visits different businesses.

Crossing boundaries like this increases the probability that we can get some new ideas.


then Associating different ideas from these activties

The activities above provide lots of ideas and the opportunity to break categories.  But there’s one more requirement…

Hal explained that when he asked the founding entrepreneurs of innovative firms (Google, Apple etc) what they were doing when they got the innovative ideas that disrupted their industries, they provided stories involving the connection of seemingly unrelated ideas (eg Pierre Omidyar combining his desire to make financial markets more efficient with his partner’s experience in trading toys; Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines realising that their success in offering a $29 fare on an unscheduled offered a new business opportunity; etc).


The HR Genome

The Innovators DNA is is partly genetics but mainly nuture – based upon experience of the world.  So question is, ‘How well does your world nurture this stuff?’.

HR is in a powerful position to influence this.  Not only can we do Hal’s activities ourselves, we can also put in place systems that reinforce these ways of doing things.


One way I try to generate new, diverse insights to stimulate innovation is through the use of social media.  So far, I’ve just got one tweet in response to Hal’s question about how HR can be an even bigger driver for innovation in organisations:



Any more suggestions? – comment below:



Innovation will also be the subject of our next show at Talking HR on Monday 9th November (do listen / call in):

Also see:





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    1. Greetings Jon,

      Pierre Omidyar talks to the person in the mailroom rather than the CEO.

      Now, I wonder why?.

      Another great place to listen to innovative ideas is the Water-cooler. Grapevines generate some of the best solutions to complex issues, particularly connected to organisational culture, including how to garner top management support for innovation.

      I seriously think HR should be realistic with what they can do and what is beyond their capacity. There is too much hype about HR's role in transforming cultural constraints. First of all, we must get rid of the notion of "DRIVING" things without blessing from the top. If you think you can cause a tsunami from a ripple you are in for a suprise. Tryng to bulldoze innovation or any program of change without the need, will and want of top leadership is destined for failure. If the CEO and his roundtable support are not into Creativity and Innovation advocacy, there is little hope for HR to succeed, even in experimenting. You may burn yourself and I speak from experience.

      Why speak of Innovation as if it's a one-off thing. Innovation and Creativity is all about free-flow and wheeling of ideas. It ought to be a way of life - culture at the workplace encourage and part-cipated by everyone and let by the top. Get this in order and you are there.

      Innovation requires courage to give in to change. There must be a conviction to shift the mindsets across to enculture it, just like buying into TQM. Extrinsic forces like customer needs and competition, but the biggest challenge between the ears.

      Yes, building the HC capasity for innovation should be a strategic leadership agenda if companies and societies are to survive. I just wished the new generational workforce can put the pressure in moving towards this.

    2. Thanks once again Yuvarajah.


    3. In my experience, innovation happens when we encouraged free conversations (and accept whatever are said) and allowed the use of resources for experiments.

      "‘How well does your world nurture this stuff?’."

      I never really thought about the importance of Top Management with Innovation because most of them come from somewhere lower in the hierarchy. Yuvarajah is spot on with this.


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