HR’s Role in Strategic Thinking
By Kaihan Krippendorff, Business Strategies, Best-Selling Author and Consultant
Recent research into innovation reveals that the key to being a successful innovator has less to do with what’s been previously assumed — like your R&D process or the number of patents you file. Instead, what distinguishes innovative firms from less-innovative firms are things like culture, talent, and incentive structure. Most senior business leaders acknowledge these as the primary factors involved. And yet few believe that Human Resources or Talent Management groups — the drivers of culture, talent, and the incentive structure in an organization — play a major role in fostering innovation. The very departments responsible for innovative thinking are rarely acknowledged for their critical role.
There is a disconnect — and therefore an opportunity.
Business leaders are always looking for ideas to drive innovation and organic growth. They know that these ideas will come from the domains of talented people and a supportive culture. But they are looking in the wrong places. They are looking among other business leaders and managers within operations and finance for ideas that will unlock new innovation. And this creates a great opportunity for the Human Resources, Learning and Development, or Talent executive who is willing to step up and take the empty seat at the table.
In focus groups and one-on-one interviews that we have conducted with Human Resources leaders, we find most agree that over the last decade or two the HR department has ceded ground and given up its role as a strategic advisor to business. It has become known as the group that helps ensure compliance rather than the group that introduces breakthrough ideas.
But in the gap between where people look for innovation and growth, and what they expect out of the Human Resources leader, lies the opportunity for HR leadership development. It won’t be easy and it will take time. It will require not one conversation but many in which you, as an HR leader, a Talent leader, or a Leadership and Development leader, learn to trust your ability to engage with business in a dialogue about strategic possibilities. One conversation about strategic HR leadership may not be enough but if you can show, consistently and over 5 or 10 or 30 conversations, that you are able to lead your business colleagues toward new possibilities you will own that seat at the table.
There are three strategic HR leadership factors that you should consider:
- Your degree of self-interest
- Your understanding of context
- Your ability to evoke innovative ideas
Degree of self-interest
The more that people believe you are driven by their success and by the company’s success, rather than by your own advantage, the more likely they will be to listen to you. Just as you trust a doctor who has your best interest at heart more than cycling through to the next patient as quickly as possible, your business partner will listen to you more closely if you enter each conversation demonstrating your interest in the organization’s success above your own. Show them that you are willing to advocate for decisions that may cost you power but that you believe are right for the company.
Your understanding of context
Research shows that the perception of strategic thinking skills is more important to your career than things like influence or problem-solving skills. And what indicates great strategic thinking often is your display of an understanding of the context. By that we mean three things. First, in understanding your company’s context: your mission, your vision, your values, the aspirations of your senior leadership, the expectation of your investors. Second, an understanding of your competition: who they are, what their plans are, what their relative strengths are compared to you. Third, an understanding of your customer: who your core customer is, what the psychology is behind their purchase decisions and loyalty, how they differ from the core customers of your competitors. If you enter each conversation with your business partners having thought through these three areas you will begin to display your command of context.
Ability to evoke innovative ideas
Finally, while showing that your aspirations lie with the company and that you understand the context, you have now earned the right to help your business partner generate innovative ideas. When they start hearing strategic creativity when they speak to you, they will seek you out again. They may not know what you are doing but they will know that whenever they dialogue with you they leave with a mind full of ideas. Our research with the Outthinker process over the last 12 years has shown that the key to doing this is to tell “strategic narratives” that lead the listener to uncommon solutions. By asking the right compelling questions like “where is the next battleground?” or “how can we coordinate what is uncoordinated?” you will open up exciting new strategic possibilities and prove yourself an effective strategic partner.