Is HR the wrong department for innovation?

Are you the innovator with the big idea?
Are you the innovator with the big idea?

Think about your typical HR department or typical HR person. Does the word innovator come to mind? For most of you probably not, it doesn’t for me. HR is often more concerned with the status quo or the best practice. HR is more concerned about not breaking the rules, after all HR is the keeper of the handbook and policy manual. HR helped develop those rules to make the workplace a more sane and orderly place in which to do business.


In his book Future Smart, futurist James Canton describes the four mindsets you will find in any workplace. These are the Traditionalist, the Maintainer, the Adapter and the Trailblazer. How does HR fall in relation to these mindsets?
The Traditionalist gives you the reasons things should not change. They are the overt resisters of change and see no reason to innovate. I have known many HR practioner that would be described this way.
The Maintainer is the person that on the outside says yes but they mean no. They are fearful of change but don’t want to be perceived as being resistant. They slow down innovation all the time. They want to study things longer or don’t think the group is ready for change. I have come across these people as well during my tenure in HR.
The Adapter is someone who is ready to change as long as that change provides value and solutions. They are not “change for change’s sake” kind of people. They realize things need to change, but as Canton says, “they are reluctant change agents.” These are the HR people that get new systems put in place. They are the ones that get that legacy HRIS updated and coordinated with an applicant tracking system. They are the ones that have started to use Twitter and LinkedIn to find new candidates. They are the ones that realize that maybe texting is the way to communicate with Millennials and have started to develop a method of doing so. They are the ones that read about “progress” companies and start to think “maybe we should try that.”
The Trailblazer, according to Canton, leads change. They are the innovators in your organization. Canton describes the way innovators think as :

They are open. They explore. They envision the future, have long-term forecasts, are not afraid of breaking rules, and are above all else, they are courageous, even in the face of failure, criticism, and disaster. They have the capacity to change Fast, fail Fast, and succeed Fast. They are always looking for opportunity to embrace emerging innovations to create value.

Fortunately the HR profession has some of these people too, but far too few. There are organizations that are doing new things with people. They are creating new ways to find, recruit, engage, communicate, and help people grow. Typically these HR leaders are teamed with a CEO who is also a trailblazer. Without that combination a Trailblazer in HR will become frustrated and leave, or the organization will become frustrated with them and force them out. That is how consulting companies are created.

Which describes you and your organization?

After reading this go look in the mirror. Ask yourself “Which am I?” Decide if you are ok with that description. If you are in the first two groups or work for an organization that can be described that way then the likelihood is that neither will be around for the long-term.
Trailblazers in business are needed today. The speed of change in technology, in knowledge, in methods and in the world requires us to have a Trailblazer mentality. If you are not there you need to think about what you need to do to change. Otherwise you have to think about what you have to do to survive. Which do you want?
Image Credit: Stuart Miles

4 thoughts on “Is HR the wrong department for innovation?”

  1. Mike – great post. I think HR can be a Trailblazer and an Innovator in an organization. However, it takes a much greater effort because organizations typically want HR to be in either the Traditionalist or Maintainer role. It’s hard to say whether that’s “right” or “wrong” because several companies have been successful with HR in those roles.
    I’d like to see more HR Trailblazers because I think companies are yearning for someone to break them out of the complacency and stagnation that most experiences. HR has the freedom to do this – they just need to be bold, step out and act !!

    • Steve – Thanks for the comment. I agree there are some great Trailblazers in HR, but too few and too seldom. The profession seems to attract more cautious types or it punishes them. Like I said in the post that is where you get consultants from. I think more Trailblazers might help us get over the “I hate HR” hump.

  2. I will echo Steve here: HR tends to breed Traditionalists and Maintainers.
    I think your observation about Trailblazers in HR typically being partnered with a Trailblazer CEO is very accurate. People will naturally follow the style of their leader, which, in this case, leads to a lot of HR people being Traditionalist and Maintainers.
    In my opinion, it is very difficult for a Trailblazer to thrive under the leadership of anyone but a Trailblazer. Sure, they can survive under an Adapter, but they will not reach their full potential and will become frustrated. I don’t think a Trailblazer will survive under the leadership of a Traditionalist or Maintainer.
    Until the leaders of today allow the Trailblazers in their organizations to run wild a bit, I do not see this status quo changing anytime soon.

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