Dear HR Pro: Please Don’t Kill Innovation. Thank You.

Thought that title would get your attention! Believe it or not, this isn’t going to be an HR-bashing post. The lifeblood of an organization is going to lie in its ability to continually innovate and adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and I happen to think HR plays a key rule in making this happen. Innovation requires smart, motivated people, which any company who makes a living in the knowledge economy will have, or at least claim to have!  So, why are some companies able to continually innovate while others fall by the wayside? Smart, motivated people + $h!++y environment = no real innovation.  This is where we as HR pros come in—it’s all about the organizational system you build around those smart, motivated people, which, in my opinion, is what we really get paid to do.  With that in mind, here are 3 things you can do as an HR pro to support innovation in your organization:

  • Build Multi-Disciplinary Teams.  Solving complex problems require a diverse group of people—education, training, experience, gender, race/ethnicity—all bringing their knowledge and expertise to the tableThis is critical, since in most knowledge-based industries people are assembled to tackle complex problems with no obvious “right” answer.  The problem is, most organizations still organize themselves as if they were still in the era of assembly lines. They build department structures with a narrow scope of responsibilities, fairly homogenous training and experience, and are inflexible and slow to adapt to change.  If you really want to help drive innovation, think about how and where you can rely on multi-disciplinary teams that aren’t just on loan from a department as their home base.
  • Eliminate Formal Job Descriptions.  In my opinion, job descriptions are only marginally helpful when you’re recruiting someone to join your organization. As soon as they join, you should immediately burn it!  Innovation requires people to think and act across boundaries.  It requires people to take chances and apply their know-how in different parts of your organization. In my opinion, job descriptions are reductionist—they narrow your scope to a discreet set of responsibilities which is not likely to spark an innovative idea. In their place, you should consider asking people to define their purpose.  Purpose is much more broad and describes what you are here to achieve in an organization while giving you permission to think beyond your area (for more on this idea you should read Joan Bragar’s book Leading for Results).
  • Don’t Confuse Getting Results with Performance Management.  I get really frustrated when I hear HR pros talk about how they’re going to drive performance. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you aren’t driving anything! Driving performance is the responsibility of managers. When HR pros start thinking that performance-management systems (with ratings, competencies, etc.) drive performance, you’re in trouble. In my experience, these systems become too cumbersome to do anything other than get in the way of achieving results. What we need to do instead is ditch these systems and our obsessive focus on ratings, and focus instead on helping managers do a better job of coaching their people to achieve what matters—results (see KD’s most recent post on this topic over at the HR Capitalist).

Bottom line—HR pros can play a critical role in supporting innovation. Just avoid these common traps!


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Andy Porter
Andy Porter is Chief People Officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA which means he works with some wicked smaaht people. Some days, he indeed does wear short shorts around the office(call it a morale booster) but it really just makes people uncomfortable. Other days, he spits some mad game on cheese. No really – he’s somewhat of a cheese aficionado. But more importantly? At Broad he gets to his small part to help change the world of healthcare.


  1. Kris Dunn
    Kris Dunn says:

    Andy –

    I like the thought of de-emphasizing job descriptions. What do you think about still having a brief run of the most important things they have to contribute to help the org be successful? Is that too much? What else would you add to that to try and create an environment where people feel like they are expected to innovate?


  2. Andy Porter says:

    Purpose and goals. To me that’s the secret sauce – why I’m here and what I’m going to deliver. But goals change and job descriptions don’t. That’s my main problem with them.

    I’m also a big believer in flat, non-hierarchical structures, with a de-emphasis on titles. We’ve done this at Merrimack. To me, this signals to the organization that ideas can come from anywhere and we’re going to do our best to eliminate unnecessary hoops for people to advance their ideas.

    We’ve also eliminated performance ratings. Not because we don’t believe in measuring performance (we do) but they’re too short-term focused and their falsely “precise”. In our business you might fail 10 times before you apply what you learned and succeed. Now, imagine you’re on failure #8 (not uncommon in our world) and it happens to be rating time. If I ding you for with a low rating, guess what? We never see failure 9 and 10 and miss out on the “a-ha”.

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