Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

chris-grams's picture

Orientation Discussion Synthesis

By Chris Grams on May 8, 2022

During the orientation phase of the hackathon, we asked you to weigh in with your thoughts about the role that HR could play in spurring adaptability within our organizations. Over 50 contributors shared their ideas in a wide-ranging introductory discussion.

During the orientation phase of the hackathon, we asked you to weigh in with your thoughts about the role that HR could play in spurring adaptability within our organizations. Over 50 contributors shared their ideas in a wide-ranging introductory discussion.

If you are joining the hackathon late and found the number of comments (almost 200!) intimidating reading, the blog post below should be a good way to see some of the highlights of the discussion (and we’ll do additional synthesis of the QuickMIX results and the definitions of adaptability, so stay tuned for those).

If you were a contributor to the conversation and would like to point out any key themes or ideas that we’ve missed in this synthesis, please feel free to add them in the comments section below.

Changing the perception of change

One theme that stretched throughout the discussion was the opportunity for HR to play a defining role in creating a positive perception of change within the organization.

Debbie Stivala put it this way: “HR needs to change employees’ perspectives of change from fear to excitement…”

Guido Rubio Amestoy asked a very simple question: are we enjoying change? This led to a discussion of whether or not most people inherently like change.

For example, Tojo Eapen wondered whether a positive reaction to change might be counter to human nature. He said, “In my experience, most changes (not incremental ones) result in active discomfort (at least in the initial stages). I think recent neuroscience-related findings are very useful [and] indicate that the normal human brain picks up the ‘threat’ state when a change comes on.”

But my fellow hackathon guide John McGurk, while acknowledging that some people are afraid of change, thought that we shouldn’t let this hold us back from changing the way change is perceived. “If we look at the idea of people being afraid of change as a given we can’t position change as an often positive and dynamic force.”

Edna Pasher agreed with John, and she liked the idea of moving from thinking of change as trauma to “looking at it as an adventure.”

Monique Jordan suggested a way to manage the emotional aspects of change in two parts. “First is to enroll people in the change i.e. help them link the success of the change to a personal goal and second is to set and manage expectations.” Her reasoning? “When someone knows what to expect—even if it is not what they want—they can ready themselves. Dealing with the unexpected creates many more emotions.”

Enabling experimentation and learning

Many of our contributors focused on the opportunity for HR to help increase organizational adaptability by becoming an enabler of experimentation and learning.

Kirstie Quinnin put this in terms of thinking of the organization as creating “a great collective lab which has access to resources and can offer some protection and guidance to the experimentor.”

Edna Pasher believed the focus of HR “should be on enabling experimentation and on making sure that experiments are exploited not only for immediate renewal but for learning as well.” She refered to this as “learning through doing.”

Leonardo Zangrando built on Edna’s idea by sharing his experiences working with innovators and entrepreneurs to instill a “learning attitude” where people are “learning from the market by continuously validating assumptions.”

Role of HR as a catalyst

Sean Schofield suggested a role that seemed to resonate with many other contributors: HR as a connector, integrator, and enabler. Here’s what he said:

“HR individuals should be equipped with the skills to deepen thinking, draw alignment, and facilitate business vision and execution in a participative conversational approach. This means connecting people and ideas; integrating processes, systems, and silos; tending to the ecosystem of values, vision, and execution enabling delivery against business strategy.”

Kirstie Quinnin built on Sean’s idea of tending to the ecosystem. She wondered whether this sort of role might require a whole new set of skills and qualities for HR professionals.

Huw Morris wondered whether as a catalyst, HR should take on the key role of safeguarding and evolving the core values of the organization. Keith Gulliver agreed, suggesting that when there was a disconnect between the espoused values of the organization and the actual behaviors demonstrated by leadership, “HR must call out such disconnects and ensure they are addressed.”

Increasing the “range for change”?

John McGurk brought up the idea of “range anxiety,” a concept originally coined in the context of car shopper’s concerns about how far an electric car can go without a charge. His connection:

“You can see the parallels with organisational change and innovation. When change is envisaged and implemented, we all wonder if our programme has the legs or could it run out of puff? The key thing in electric cars is having the infrastructure to support it but there are big upfront investments to lay out. So how do we make sure we have the investments in order to have the range for change?”

Keith Gulliver liked the “range for change” analogy, and suggested two ways of looking at how to increase the range. First, he suggested that the organization could have a network of ‘change agents’ operating as the organization’s batteries; they would be “key people who regularly reinforce the change and all that it means.” Second, he suggested that the organization could “implement the notion of being change ready” where everyone in the organization is trained and prepared to adapt.

A few other interesting conversation points

There were so many great ideas generated during this orientation conversation that it is hard to capture them all here, but here are a few last nuggets that stood out for us.

Stephen De Kalb pointed out that many organizations attempt to outsource change, which can cause change efforts to fail once the change agents are gone. “The part for me that’s missing in most organizational change is that change is led by people who aren’t there when the change is supposedly finished—the experts and the contractors leave, the management focus fades, HR goes back to putting out fires and any legacy of change evaporates sometimes overnight.”

Olivier Lambel told us about his organization that has managed to continue to adapt in part because it has eliminated the traditional command and control structures and replaced them with an “inverted pyramid where our only boss is our clients.”

Richard James Barnes pointed that Oliver was the first person to mention the word “customer” during the discussion. Richard believes that customer focus and empathy are critical drivers of change. “HR doesn’t drive change,” he said, “customers do and that is where we need to be focusing our attention. If we can’t empathise with our customers we can’t anticipate them and we can’t design services and products which address their desires.”

Kim Spinder, a former MIX M-Prize winner, took the provocative stance that HR itself needs to be reinvented because “in it’s current role, HR doesn’t add value.” According to Kim, “HR should create a culture where employees work together both online and offline, exchange information, and encourage exploration in new ways of working. It’s all about creating a new mindset and making innovation part of an organization’s DNA.”

Another former MIX M-Prize winner, Luc Galoppin, took a similarly provocative position, suggesting that HR is less often an “agent of change or a stimulator of adaptability” and more often an “agent of stability and a very good one.” His thought was that this might imply some additional qualities that we could associate with HR beyond those that Gary provided in his introduction.”

So what else stood out for you? Are there key takeaways you had from the orientation discussion that we’ve missed here? Please share them in the comments section below.

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deb-seidman's picture

HR could spur adaptability by helping the people in their organizations to look outward -- to customers, markets, external trends -- to identify opportunities and threats. HR's focus is typically internal -- what is happening inside the organization and how to help the organization, itself, operate effectively. It looks externally to benchmarks and best practices, which can be sources of good ideas, but don't drive the need to adapt.

martin-sutherland's picture

This is one of my favorite cartoons that illustrates the "inside-out" rather than "outside-in" focus of HR (http://tinyurl.com/l6n6xlj). The irony in the cartoon is that the final picture is not what the customer described. HR so often wants to "do what the customer describes", rather than apply some insight to understand what the customer means.

martin-sutherland's picture

There was an article recently in Inc.com I feel summarizes this whole exercise of "Hacking HR", it's called "Originality is over-rated" (http://m.inc.com/?incid=47881). The basic idea is that "selling something new is a lot harder than selling something that is familiar".
I was really excited by the idea of this program, it's a great metaphor for rethinking a tough problem, but I'm stunned by the lack of uptake. I would have hoped that a lot more (HR) people would have wanted to participate in it. I've been looking for explanations for this lack of willingness to embrace the new and different, and the book "I'll have what she's having" (from the well known scene in When Harry meets Sally) captured the main driver of social behavior, copying. When faced with a situation that is unfamiliar the strategies are: copy the majority; copy the successful individuals; copy friends; copy older individuals; copy those who are better.
People who are "better" at securing HR Director positions tend to be better a managing their career, not necessarily driving disruptive change. The need to drive change in HR is a sure-fire career killer and doesn't encourage a real "hacker-like" commitment to being "anti-establishment", to getting into the "wiring" of a system, tweeking, playing, exploring and experimenting with different solutions. These are not characteristics that will advance your career in HR. So when HR people look around, they don't see "mavericks" committed to changing archaic processes and mindsets that are a hangover from the old "personnel" department, they see people who are "successful/older/better" at playing the game of working with the familiar, maybe making an small incremental tweek to an established process.
As a result, they learn that to survive and thrive, copy successful behaviors, and those behaviors do not include "hacking" a system to improve it, putting your career at risk and having robust debates with senior managers whose view of HR is transactional and insist on yet another job description. Hacking takes "guts" and that is not in abundance in many corporate environments, and maybe even less so in HR.

christine-lewis's picture

I've only just joined this forum and it's great to read the contributions so far - I completely agree with Perry about how insightful your perspective is Martin and so much of what you have articulated resonates with me.

Your initial comments highlight the completely counter intuitive nature of human behaviour and motivation and the challenges this presents in fostering engagement with adaptability and change - good old parochial self interest means that human beings are often more preoccupied with what they stand to lose when faced with change situation opposed to what they might gain.

Knowing this, it has perplexed me for a long time why HR (and organisations generally) seem to place such little emphasis on proactively identifying, anticipating and supporting their employees "emotional" journey through change in order for change to be successful and viewed positively. This for me prompts the following questions:

- Do HR practitioners have the capability (and will) to themselves adopt the mind set shift required to challenge the status quo, question archaic systems, processes and thinking to truly act as agents for change in organisations?

- How a paradigm shift in regards the perceived purpose and role of HR in organisations can be facilitated - away from the premise of HR as "policing" the organisation, maintaining stability and focusing primarily on transactional activities to enabling organisations to become more adaptable by offering progressive (yet pragmatic) solutions that foster and support engagement and buy in for change in their organisations.

Completely agree with your sentiment Martin about hacking taking courage and guts - from personal experience, as a maverick by nature I have encountered some pretty one dimensional HR practice in my career so far and have often found that my views have been in the minority. This is why I believe that the "Hackathon" and similar initiatives have the potential to bring HR professionals to the forefront of questioning, challenging and offering solutions to revolutionise how organisations operate in the C21.


martin-sutherland's picture

Hi Christine

I recently read this article (http://tinyurl.com/mgxef3q) on the HBR blog and I think it provided an interesting research base for the conundrum you mention. How do people who talk about the future (gain) speak to people who value the present (fear of loss). The short version of this article is:
People with a promotion focus (gain) will assign great (70% more) value to a solution, if spoken to in a "this is what we could gain" way, whereas as people with a prevention focus (fear of loss) assign less value when spoken to in the same way. To convince prevention focused people, you have to pitch the value of the proposition as "if you don't do this you could lose a lot", and then they assign greater (70% more) value to exactly the same idea. The tricky part is that there are both types of people in an organization. So maybe the solution is to develop two different messages, one that promises gain, and the other that creates fear in order to get both types of people to see greater value in the change that is proposed. To often, the people who are passionate and "sell" the change are so fired up on the gains, that they forget to cater to the people who are not motivated by gain, but rather by the fear of loss.

perry-timms_1's picture

Wow Martin you have done a brilliant job of articulating something that has been troubling me as a Hackathon participant. Your "copy" reference explains a lot here, thanks for sharing it. Hacking DOES take guts - and there are a number of us active in that and feeling like we have to justify to non-participants why we're bothering. We're bothering because we care, we have insight to share and we want better. Nothing scary about that..!

Appreciate your thoughts here. Look forward to hearing more from you. I will try and find you on LinkedIn so we can connect if that's OK?


martin-sutherland's picture

Sure, no problem connecting, let me know if you have a problem finding me.


From my experience in the public sector, HR departments are for the most part a non-factor in having any real influence in easing issues confronting change. Issues with adaption happen at the "field level", where people are confronted with immediately evolving situations that require new ideas and approaches. So it is a matter of leadership, which unfortunately in my view, in my realm, is lacking as a priority. For many public sector agencies, productivity is not measured by an economic "bottom line". It is statistics that are valued. So the general paradigm is that managers are concerned with and seem competitive about statistics. Often the statistics that are desired are based on old models of "successful" results and do not represent the ever-present and changing realities being confronted by "the troops". Further, if managers are to compete, the competition should be the managers' ability to encourage and nurture the best in the employees they have: working towards unleashing the utmost in each employee's potential; appreciating their diverse skills, abilities and perspectives. I am more for managers as being the "sergeant on the ground", in the foxhole with the troops; leading through the reality of change by going through it with the troops!; not, do as I say and...maybe I'll do. (Note: I am a manager with a group, and my hope is that I can continually improve and ultimately be a part of their flourishing.)

Future is not the projection of the Past. Otherwise we should all still have baby behaviours !!
Changes in the environment enforce changes in behaviours. Otherwise we are all animals repeating responses

Agree with Kim Spinder. Abolish the role of HR (currently they only create and maintain policies). The Managers should take control of the HR Management completely.

Olivier's focus on customers as the prime reason in a professional services industry is relevant. Change is accepted quite readily if it is seen to address relevant issues.

I agree. If the change can be justified to those that it affects, there is a chance that there will be positive outcomes.

If it is perceived that the change is for change's sake there will be resistance and unproductive disruption.

Unfortunately there are those who do promote change for ill-defined benefits. ("[change] disrupts all the routines in an organization that collectively stifle innovation and adaptability.")

Disruption may have some benefits, but these have to be weighed against the negative effects.

The neuroscience behind change says that the subconscious goes into overdrive producing the chemicals in the brain that make us fearful and keep us using the same neuro pathways in the brain - it literally fights against change. Knowing this can help understanding just how deeply ingrained fearing change can be for some and at the very least calls for patience and creativity in convincing the conscious to override the subconscious programming.

When employees trust their Organization, they don't fear change!

ulrich-nettesheim's picture

Chris, thanks for the summary above. I had suggested along the lines of Kim and Luc that HR needs to contribute to the highest value work of adaptation and address the challenges that come up. One of my specific calls to action for HR was to help reinvent how organizations govern themselves so that management structures and processes adapt at the speed of change in the market. Do that and HR is squarely "in the ring" figuring out enablers of organic growth. How many CEO's would love that?