Innovation is an HR Problem

I was reading an article in a recent McKinsey Quarterly on innovation.  The Quarterly was interviewing Brad Bird from Pixar, and I was surprised how often employee engagement came up.  Sure, Brad talked about collaboration and all the rest, but the engagement of the employee teams surprised me.  In HR, we all know that employee engagement is critical, but we don’t always expect our leaders to phrase it in the same way, using those words.  Perhaps the message is starting to sink in.

It’s quite obvious to us in HR that an engaged employee is one who will contribute better to our organization’s future.  They will be more productive and put in more of the personal discretionary time.  But cutting to the chase, they care about success more and will try harder.  When it comes to innovation, put into the context of engaged and unengaged employees, you simply can’t innovate unless you’re engaged.  It’s almost contrary to the definition of engagement.

The problem is that it’s clear that employee engagement is an HR issue.  But if engagement is low, innovation is also low, and this seems to be one of the global prime directives of business at the moment.  “Innovate or die” is something I’ve heard often recently, and while not a nice through, global competitive forces may make it true.  Well if “innovate or die” is correct, and innovation cannot exist without engagement, then perhaps “engage or die” should be HR’s slogan.

Here’s a couple of snippets from the McKinsey interview.

The Quarterly: Do angry people—malcontents, in your words—make for better innovation? Can you be innovative and also happy?

Brad Bird: I would say that involved people make for better innovation. Passionate involvement can make you happy, sometimes, and miserable other times. You want people to be involved and engaged. Involved people can be quiet, loud, or anything in-between—what they have in common is a restless, probing nature: “I want to get to the problem. There’s something I want to do.” If you had thermal glasses, you could see heat coming off them.

The Quarterly: It sounds like you spend a fair amount of time thinking about the morale of your teams.

Brad Bird: In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.  ((Hayagreeva Rao, Robert Sutton, and Allen P. Webb, April, 2008.  “Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird.”  Retrieved from McKinsey Quarterly on July 13, 2008.))

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4 thoughts on “Innovation is an HR Problem”

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  2. Pixar’s president, Ed Catmull, is the kind of guy who looks for job candidates with interesting backgrounds who can shake things up a bit. A prime example of a “radical” hire is Randy Nelson.
    Randy is Dean of Pixar University, the studio-based school that Ed Catmull and John Lasseter modeled after Walt Disney’s school of the 1930s. He didn’t exactly have a “corporate HR” resume…he was one of the founding members of the world-famous juggling troupe the Flying Karamazov Brothers! As Ed said, “He had an unusual combination of skills, which I felt was an asset. I figured I’d rather have a world-class juggler running the program than a mediocre artist. People who have experience doing great work understand something that can be applied to other things.” What a great reminder for everyone in the field of HR.

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