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Can HR Influence Creativity and Innovation?


If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Successful businesses are all about creating ‘cultures of creativity’ (as I explored in my previous post). Noble though this cliché is, it’s not exactly explanatory of what organisations should really do to achieve it.

Christina Iaonnidis, a businesswoman and co-author of Your Loss: How to Win Back Your Female Talent, thinks cultures of creativity are meaningless while firms are all still too guilty of a form of Groupthink – when creative ideas for growth / innovation come from staff so homogeneous (let’s call them middle aged men), they barely come up with anything creative at all. To repeat another cliché, these people are largely ‘pale, male and stale’.

“If innovation is all about collaboration,” says Iaonnidis, “then it’s just not possible, because women’s views have effectively become invisible. The way companies reflect a particular culture, the way they recruit, even the way their policies unwittingly leave women unfulfilled all means creativity is being lost.”

She isn’t the only one to despair at a lack of creative culture. A recent study – HR’s Contribution to Creativity and Innovation – found fewer than 20% of firms polled admitted having taken any steps at all to foster creativity. Its conclusion was unanimous: HR has “a long way to go.” But here’s where Iaonnidis and the report differ: Both have very different ideas and assessments of whether HR can do anything about it.

“Changing this is much bigger than HR,” argues Iaonnidis. “It’s a change of mindset that’s needed which is bigger than the company.” Contrast this with report author William Pasmore, organisational practice leader at the Center for Creative Leadership, who believes change is very possible. “If HR creates talent systems and leadership development modes, this will encourage people to do the right thing,” he says.

So, how do these contrasting views move the debate on? After all, talk of ‘leadership development models’ or ‘talent systems’ may sound familiar, but do they really have anything to do with creativity? Does anyone actually know?

Controversial though it might sound, perhaps the truer path towards creating a creative culture lies less with hard and fast academic HR models and theories (the sort of road HR people have paradoxically been forced to go down – mainly to get the ear of the finance director), but by taking the challenge thrown down by Iaonnidis – of returning to the ‘softer side’ they were once criticised for.

Similar research (comprising interviews of Fortune 500 executives) from the Center for Talent Innovation recently found that the vast majority of companies failed to realise their innovative potential precisely because leaders failed to see value in ideas from people unlike themselves. In companies surveyed 53% of leadership was described as almost entirely white or almost entirely male, with 56% of respondents saying leaders at their firm fail to see value in ideas that they personally can’t relate to.

These are the so-called HiPPO businesses – where only one opinion matters – that of the Highest Paid Person in the Organisation. HiPPO firms, it is argued, fail to engender a culture of ideas because homogeneity in leadership suppresses it. But, employment experts do think there is a role that both HR and leaders can play in this together. It’s not HR sacking all the ivory-tower leaders in firms today, and replacing them with Gen Y men and women (although HR is quite good at sacking people), but it does involve them doing something they’re not very good at – working with leaders to break old command-and-control models, and foster a culture of inclusion.

Yes, there is a problem here. You can’t really measure ‘culture’ in nice to have financials. But, in HR-speak, there is at least a distinction between one and ‘two-dimensional’ diversity. The latter has diversity that is both inherent and acquired, when achieved, it does produce results. When it exists, The Centre for Talent Innovation finds leaders at all levels will be 74% more likely to exhibit the inclusive behaviours that foster a speak-up culture, which in turn unlocks innovation.

At digital agency NixonMcInnes, this isn’t just a concept, it’s real life. The firm has been accredited by US organisation WorldBlu as one the UK’s few truly ‘democratic workplaces’. Staff deliberately have a say in everything – from deciding who joins the business (they sit in on interviews); who has pay rises (and by how much), and how many hours they work. Staff can vote on what terms they get given, and they even have a ‘Church of Fail’ – where the rest of the team can tell people where they’ve failed (in a supportive way). Founder Tom Nixon says: “It’s here because the barrier to innovation is fear of failure.”

Nixon adds: “We simply believe that if you treat people as adults, you get better outcomes. Leaders must get away from the ‘them and us’ mentality. It’s incredibly obvious that if you allow people to work like this, they are more creative, because they know how people work together.”

Advocates of diversity/inclusivity might have heard of a famous article – called ‘The Power of Listening, the tale of two American CEOs who turned around the failing paper box factory they’d bought by treating employees as individuals. They decided to share all financial data with staff, and even give them a voice in the strategic decisions that affected their working lives. Not long afterwards, the business was a roaring success.

The moral of the story, point out advocates of workplace inclusion, is that a true culture of creativity can only be fostered when nothing is private, and when all views, from all people are heard. This can be a policy business can pursue. And if transparency is everywhere, staff feel encouraged to think and share ideas.

“You’ve got to move away from structure,” adds Sam Silverwood-Cope, CEO at search engine optimisation agency, Intelligent Positioning. “When leaders genuinely mean it, and they you can demonstrate this by showing trust in all their people, then people feel more relaxed. When they feel more relaxed they do stuff better, and put more discretionary effort in, and come up with great ideas.”

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