Why is it that when you talk about innovation most people can’t look beyond product innovation?

It’s a wonderful thing to have superior products, particularly if you can create products that people just love to have and to use, like Apple. My wife only got her first Apple product, an i-Phone, about 6 months ago and quickly followed up with an i-Mac. She is now very keen on the idea of an i-Pad.

NEW YORK - JUNE 24: The new iPhone 4, which went on sale this morning, is displayed at the flagship Apple Store on Fifth Avenue on June 24, 2010 in New York City. People waited outside of stores overnight to be first in line when doors opened at 7 a.m. in New York and at 8 a.m. local time in Germany, Japan, France and the United Kingdom. The iPhone 4 will cost $199 for a 16-gigabyte version and $299 for a version with 32 gigabytes of storage. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Apart from the fact that I can’t play “Angry Birds“ I am quite happy with my Blackberry, which I see as being a reasonable competitor to the i-Phone.

I believe that what makes Apple unique is not just its product line as whilst I can accept that this is outstanding, I also understand that there are serious alternatives, and that under the law of averages I am sure that someone, fairly soon, will come up with another quantum leap in “hand-held magic”, and that this will become the newest god to the cognoscenti. I believe that what makes Apple so unique and competitive is that on top of their great products, they also seem to have a great culture, and it’s this culture that drives their innovation, and hence their superior products.

It’s interesting that even though Apple has been around since the 70’s it doesn’t seem to have developed the rigidity that long established companies tend to have, despite the changes in CEO over the years and despite their growth. They have somehow managed to retain a casual and free character, and resisted any real push for policies and procedures or dress codes or time sheets. As a result, they seem to have created a common desire, energy and enthusiasm to create great products and to beat and baffle their competition.

I believe that this ability to grow from start-up in 1976 to a company of about 35,000 permanent and 2,500 temporary staff and revenues of US $ 43 B in 2009, and yet retain this “maverick” culture after 35 years, is a rare and enviable achievement, and I believe that this ability to help create, protect and build culture is a critical role for HR to play, as it is a major driver of innovation.

I have always believed that innovation is not just about genius (hiring the brightest and the best), but more about “How we do things around here” (culture), and as Peter Drucker says “ … hard work over a long period of time … “ (see “The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010).

I was once asked to help a senior software development manager who was having a problem with his team, which was made up of about 20 young “geniuses”, and who just weren’t delivering the goods. I was in his office listening to his complaints about his team’s lack of creativity, when one of his young team members interrupted us in an obviously high state of excitement. It seems that he had been up most of the night working on a technical roadblock that had been bothering the team for over a week. After I pushed his boss into accepting the interruption, this young man proceeded to describe his breakthrough with considerable pride. His boss heard him out, and then without missing a beat described his own solution, which he had come up with some days earlier, but had kept from the team to see what they could do. As the young man left the room, his boss turned to me and said “See that … no creativity”. I added “… and even less tomorrow”.

I have found that the further you move up the management structure, the less is management aware of the real culture of the company, and the more there is a belief that “… if you write it, so it shall be .. “, and hence a belief that as it is written in the published mission, vision and values statements it must be true. This is one of the reasons that companies sometimes struggle to execute a strategy, as the culture will oppose it, and for a company to be successful it must ensure that its culture, being its values and behaviours, are aligned to its strategy.

black and white low angle view of a road sign saying change of strategy ahead

It is important to understand that culture is evolving and changing all the time. As the company grows, it will change. Every time new recruits come in to the company, they will bring their own behaviours and values with them, and will have some impact on the culture, even if only a little if the company culture is very strong. But if the company is going through significant growth, these changes can be dramatic. Culture will also be impacted by external conditions, like changes in legislation, competition or market conditions, and whilst some of these may be positive and some may be planned, a vast majority happen clandestinely, and out of sight and awareness of senior management.

This is where a strong HR department can play a critical and pivotal role by working with management to help identify and develop the patterns of behaviour and values that the company needs for it to be successful.

HR needs to be able to assess what is the true company culture, (for example, by noting what people do rather than what they say), to work with management to develop what they see as being the desired culture and the roadmap to move from one to the other, by determining the elements in the current culture that should be kept, and the elements that need to be changed.

This whole process of change is one of the key platforms for driving innovation, and HR organisations have a key role to play in its successful execution. This covers many areas that HR has traditionally been responsible for anyway such as stringent recruiting practices, induction programmes that ensure recruits understand the integrity of the company, being “What we believe is what we say is what we do”, and the values that the company holds to be true. Adding to this the management, protection and development of the required company culture should be a critical step for HR, and will bring HR closer to the CEO as it should be his priority as well.
I see this as being a key business “value-add” role for HR to deliver, and a significant step towards an HR organisation becoming a “Player”. ( see HR … Polite to Police to Partner to Player posted August 26, 2010).



  1. Pingback: Transforming HR – How a CEO did it « Life, Leadership and Change

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