Bringing Innovation to HR Strategy: Highlights of the 2013 SHRM Strategy Conference


We’re living in a VUCA world, said Dr. Tom Hogan at the 2013 SHRM Strategy conference. And, indeed, that was the talk of the conference.

VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Each of the speakers I heard shared thoughts, models, tools, and stories about how companies can succeed in a VUCA world.

Thinking Has Become a Daring Act

“Thinking has become a daring act,” keynote speaker Lisa Bodell (@LisaBodell) proclaimed. After all, she explained, what happens when we walk into an office to see someone staring out the window? We wonder why they’re not working. The act of thinking is seen as something frivolous, time-wasting, and counter-productive. After all, thinking gets in the way of getting things done!

And yet, we’re at a time in history when we need to think more than ever. We face complex, vexing problems with deep implications for communities, our companies, and our ecosystems. We need leaders who can help us explore solutions and push the boundaries.

Unfortunately, says Bodell, we’re not grooming people to become these leaders. Instead, we’re creating professional cynics: people who, when you share your latest idea, can quickly analyze the situation, point out the reasons it won’t work, and successfully protect the company from risk. The problem, of course, is that, to solve our knotty problems, we need to take risks.

How do we move towards greater innovation and breakthrough problem solving? Keynote speaker Peter Sheahan (@PeterGSheahan) shared two stories I loved about breakthrough problem solving.

Zara Compresses a Thirty Month Process to Fourteen Days

Zara, the Spanish clothing manufacturer, has become the largest apparel manufacturer on the planet. They’ve been incredibly successful by finding a solution to a ubiquitous problem in fashion: By the time runway fashions make it to the stores thirty months after their initial viewing, they’re often passé. Some of the lucky styles are swept up by eager consumers excited by the new trend which lasts, on average, only six weeks. In other words, most companies spend thirty months working for a six week sales period—if they’re lucky.

Sheahan explained that Zara radically rethought the entire process. The company sends photographers to the fashion shows. Their photos immediately land on the factory floor where teams of designers, market specialists, procurers, and production planners figure out how to get the product shipped within fourteen days. Zara bypasses the time-consuming back-and-forth negotiations between areas to quickly and efficiently get products to market. The company broke the barriers by creating cross-functional teams, giving them an impossible goal (reducing a thirty month cycle to fourteen days), and challenging them to achieve it.

Best Buy Engages Women in Tech Buying

Best Buy, years ago, learned an unsurprising fact that was, nevertheless, news to company leaders: women comprise 50% of their customer base. In response, Best Buy leaders decided to make their stores more welcoming to women. So, Sheahan explained, they hired a male management consultant to make recommendations. His suggestion: hire more cute, brawny workers to attract female customers. The lone female executive, according to Sheahan, was enraged.

Julie Gilbert tried a different approach. She asked female Best Buy employees what would make a better shopping experience. Their ideas were practical and helpful. Widen the aisles so they’re less crowded. Mute the harsh florescent lighting. Lower the fixtures since most women can’t reach high shelves. Put up clear, common language signs to help us find our way around the store. Clean the bathrooms.

Best Buy took the suggestions and saw an 11% increase in sales revenue, a 40% increase in female General Managers and GMs in training, and female Geek Squad members increased by 400%. Best Buy broke down the barriers by asking, and then really listening, to their employees’ ideas—and then implementing them.

These are just two examples breaking down barriers. The conference was full of them. And, as an advocate for business ecosystem thinking, I couldn’t be more delighted. In my session on The Forest and the Trees: Understanding Business Ecosystems, we learned how to understand and find opportunity in business ecosystems, the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world in which we operate. Stay tuned for the next blog post on business ecosystem thinking for more on how to bring this thinking to your company.

HR’s Role in Strategy Development and Implementation

It’s natural for HR to advocate for soliciting feedback form staffers and engaging people in radically rethinking process, but many HR shops never do. They get caught in the transactional details of everyday life like coordinating benefits, handling employee relations issues, and rolling out performance management systems. Yet HR could be so much more.

Here, then, is your challenge, HR leaders:

What can you do today to engage people in your company in order to solve pressing business challenges?

How can you get out of transactional mode and use your domain–people–to make a difference for your business?

Is your strategy stuck in the 20th century?

Image of "Is Your Strategy Stuck in 20th Century"Sign up to receive the two-document Strategic Resilience set and join our low volume list. We’ll never share your information with anyone. Period.

* - required