To innovate, find your own way

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Let me tell you today the story of Carolina, a passionate Spanish girl who decided when she was 8 years old that she would become the best badminton player in the world (by the way, badminton is the second most played sport in the world just behind football-soccer). This is an impressive ambition for a child of this age but, how realistic is this for a person living in Spain, a country with no badminton tradition at all?


Carolina trained very hard from the beginning and when she was 14 she did something that changed her life forever: she proposed to a young sport teacher called Fernando Rivas to become her coach and she shared with him her dream of becoming the number 1 badminton player. Fernando was very impressed by her determination, as well as by her playing style and personality. He accepted this proposal and started coaching her right away.

Fernando had developed his expertise not only in Spain, but also in England, France, Germany and The Netherlands. He had also explored a wide range of fields and disciplines: ”I liked sitting for classes at University and listening to teachers speak. I picked notes from science, history, architecture that could help me in sport. Later I specialized in physiology, psychology, bio mechanics”. All this led him to acquire a very rich and diverse experience and, over time, develop a different and innovative way of understanding badminton. His radically new method includes among others original ways to approach physical and mental preparation, game visualization, studying the opponents, moving differently on the court and using science. In Carolina’s own words, “Fernando is very innovative, he likes always creating new things, be different. We can’t be like Asian players because otherwise we would never win”.

Fernando has developed a revolutionary method already known as “the Spanish method” or “the Rivas method” in the badminton world. And it works. This new approach allowed Carolina to become world champion in 2014 and 2015 as well as winning the badminton Olympic gold medal in 2016, becoming the first non-Asian athlete in history to achieve this feat.

But what interesfrts us today is not the detailed content of “the Rivas method”, but rather the MINDSET that allowed a humble coach to develop a brand-new approach to his sport that made him become the best badminton coach in the world. This achievement is particularly extraordinary considering there is no badminton tradition in Spain, especially compared with other countries: currently there are around 2,000 licensed badminton players in Spain versus for example 100 million players in China! However, Fernando managed to upturn the 100-year Chinese tradition of badminton by challenging status quo: “I’ve never accepted what’s taken for granted. China were the best at badminton. Ok. So what”, and mixing science, creative thinking and a lot of hard work: “It’s about studying, innovation, studying more”.

What made Fernando become a man of genius lies in the fact that he managed to transform a strong weakness in a unique strength… if you come from a country with no tradition in a specific sport, why not seize the opportunity to rethink it totally from scratch? This is what Fernando did, was this is his philosophy in his own words: “because we did not have any badminton tradition in Spain, we had to implement a different method based on things that are not done in other places precisely because tradition impedes them”. “Badminton is very new in Spain but very developed in Asia. If we do exactly the same thing they are doing, we would be at the tail end. If I don’t create new knowledge, a new method, and I explore other ways, I will lag far behind”.

Fernando’s key lesson here is that in order to innovate with success, even with unbelievable success as he did, you need to find your own path: you better do things your way, think differently, experiment, take risks… than doing things exactly like everyone else. This will only lead you, after a lot of hard work, to eventually become what we could call “the worst of the good”.

There is a Spanish saying that goes like this: “más vale ser cabeza de ratón, que cola de léon”, which means literally “better be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion”. There are other versions in the world such as “better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion” and several others including -believe it or not- chicken, oxes, lizards, pikes, cats, foxes and even sturgeons… I let you chose the animal you prefer, but you get the idea: It is better to be able to lead a small humble project or adventure your way being free (and innovative!) than to be obliged to follow and stick to the norm in bigger ones…

This was the story of Carolina Marín and specially of Fernando Rivas; I hope you enjoyed it. Coming back to you now… In which subject can you innovate and find a unique way that will bring brand-new results and value? Or in other words, what lion can you stop following to start leading innovation as a small mouse full of potential? Food for thought…



Informe Robinson: El Milagro de Carolina Marín (video, 2016, in Spanish):

Enfoque TVE – Fernando Rivas (video, 2016, in Spanish):       

How to tame a dragon: Coaches are overcoming the dominant Chinese badminton world (The Indian Express, 2016):


How does HR innovation work? (The HR innovation cycle)

After having defined HR innovation and having explained why it is important in previous posts, we are going to concentrate today on how HR innovation actually works. To do so, I propose to use what I call the “HR innovation cycle”, which is a personal interpretation of the research carried out by Amarakoon,  Weerawardena & Verreynne  (see references at the end of the post).

The HR innovation cycle explains how exactly successful HR innovations and developed in organizations. This cycle is composed by 3 phases: Learning & opportunities for HR innovation, solutions (HR innovations) and benefits of this innovations. I summarize these phases in the chart below and I present each of them afterwards:

HR innovation cycle


 a) External and internal learning: HR professionals analyze and learn from the internal and external environment of their organization. More concretely, they acquire knowledge and inspiration from/with external actors (eg. competitors, partners, clients) as well as internal stakeholders (eg. HR colleagues, managers, experts).

b) Opportunities identification: This learning and inspiration is then used to identify opportunities for HR innovation, that is, improvements or needs in the organization for which HR innovation can be a source of competitive advantage. On top of the internal and external sources mentioned, opportunities can also come from new strategic orientations of the organization of course.


a) HR innovation design: Once the opportunities have been identified, HR professionals need to come up with the concrete HR innovation(s) adding value to organizations. To do so, it can be useful to use innovation techniques such as design thinking, which boost collective intelligence and creativity. Indeed, Tim Brown (CEO of the famous design firm IDEO) mentions in his HBR article 3 key steps to design thinking: inspiration, ideation and implementation. And all of them can be found in the HR innovation cycle I am presenting.

b) HR innovation implementation: Once the HR innovation “ideation” and design are ready, it is critical that HR professionals ensure its right development and implementation to transform this idea into successful reality. Both in the design and the implementation phases, HR professionals need to partner and co-create with line managers to make sure they get both the input and the buy-in from business. Amarakoon et al. actually highlight that “firms who undertake a higher degree of HR innovation (…) involve line managers in design and development stages of HR innovation”.


a) Added value & HR recognition: By proposing HR innovations that add value to organizations, HR credibility is strongly reinforced in the eyes of management and top management. This confirms their confidence in and recognition towards HR professionals.

 c) Top Management support: HR recognition is then translated into concrete top management endorsement to support and finance future added-value HR initiatives and innovations.

This top management support opens new perspectives to keep looking for new learning and opportunities in the organization, and the HR innovation cycle starts again and again…


Competitive Advantage Through Innovation (Amarakoon,  Weerawardena & Verreynne,  European Business Review,  September 2013)

HR innovations an opportunity for gaining competitive advantage: evidence from Australia (Amarakoon, Weerawardena & Verreynne, 11th International Conference on Business Management, 2014)

Design Thinking (Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, 2008)

What is HR Innovation?

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At a time when firms strive for competitiveness, HR innovation can serve as a non-traditional, but vital source of competitive advantage”  (Amarakoon, Weerawardena & Verreynne)

As mentioned in a previous post, more and more attention starts being paid to HR innovation in organizations. However, very few definitions of what HR innovation is can still be found. The best definition I have read so far is proposed by the three Australian authors to which belongs the opening quote of today’s post. According to them, HR innovation can be defined as “an HR management activity/ practice/ programme/ system adopted by a firm that is new and value creating to the adopting firm”. These innovations can take place in one or more HR fields or practices, such as training, career management or compensation & benefits and the authors also highlight that “the degree of HR innovation differs based on the degree of newness, extent of change, number of employees affected, and nature of its outcomes” (see first reference at the end of the post).

HR innovation can be seen both as a process and as an outcome. These authors see HR innovation as an outcome and they mention two possible types of HR innovation outcomes: “proximal” outcomes (innovations in HR fields such as attraction, commitment, engagement and retention of employees) and “distal” outcomes (innovations in non-HR fields, such as productivity, market performance and financial gains). What is really interesting is that both types of outcomes are linked because “HR innovation results in proximal (HR) gains through which it influences distal (non HR) outcomes”. They mention several examples of companies which, thanks to HR innovations, improved employee turnover, absenteeism rates, commitment and engagement, what led to non-HR outcomes such as productivity improvement and product/service differentiation.

But HR innovation can also be seen as a process. In this case, we tend to focus on how the ideas emerge and how they are adopted and implemented in HR. There are several approaches and techniques which strongly contribute to this creative process, such as HR rapid prototyping or HR Hackathons. This is not today’s focus, but as I use some of these techniques in the HR innovation workshops I run, I will present some of them here in the future.

There are two types of HR innovations: radical and incremental. A radical HR innovation is for example the famous Google’s “20% Project”, in which the company proposed that staff worked on a company related project which interested each employee. This initiative has had very positive HR outcomes, such as improvement of employee motivation, performance and retention, as well as talent attraction. But this HR innovation has also business outcomes for the company, as the “20% Project” is the source of 50% of Google’s inventions, including Gmail, Google maps or Adsense. Many other disruptive HR innovations will be presented in this blog in the future, both in big organizations and in less known contexts, such as the American Major League Baseball (MLB).

Incremental HR innovations are improvements of existing HR practices that take place in organizations and, while they may be less spectacular that their radical counterparts, they also contribute to successful company transformation. Examples of incremental HR innovations can be, for companies not having these yet, the full digitalization of recruitment processes or the introduction of an internal confidential survey measuring employee engagement or employer branding. In all cases, according to research, both radical and incremental HR innovations can add value to organizations.

HR innovation can take place in one single HR field, such as recruitment or remuneration, but it can also happen in several HR fields at a time, therefore creating possible synergies among them. According to the abovementioned Australian authors, effective HR innovation implementation requires both an internal fit with other HR practices in the company and external fit with the organization’s strategic objectives. Speaking of strategy, how can HR innovation (further) constitute a source of competitive advantage for organizations? We will answer to this question in a future post soon!


Competitive Advantage Through HR Innovation (Amarakoon, Weerawardena & Verreynne, European Business Review, September 2013):

HR innovations an opportunity for gaining competitive advantage: evidence from Australia (Amarakoon, Weerawardena & Verreynne, 11th International Conference on Business Management, 2014)

Why focus on HR Innovation?


Albert Einstein used to say that creativity is intelligence having fun. And I strongly believe that more creativity and fun would allow companies to find better and more innovative solutions to the People Management challenges they face. But concretely, how can this creativity be used to produce innovative outcomes? I particularly like Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt’s quote: “creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things”. Therefore, HR innovation is not only having good ideas in the HR fields, but above all about making them happen and succeed in organizations.

Some HR teams are already leveraging on innovation to find alternative and more effective solutions to the challenges they face in HR fields such as recruitment, people development or career management, but this is only the beginning. Indeed, innovation has never been among the classical strengths of the HR function, but therefore, this also constitutes a unique opportunity for companies to build a new generation of really innovative HR professionals able to contribute in a more original and impactful way to the strategy of organizations.

According to few signs, HR innovation starts being (and above all will become) more and more critical in organizations. For example, in a recent study carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) involving 300 HR and business leaders, HR innovation has even been highlighted as the top priority for HR professionals. Indeed, 35% of these HR leaders consider HR innovation as their most critical business priority beyond for example talent or performance management. Non-HR business leaders also highlight the importance of innovation in this same report.

Furthermore, in another recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, more that 1,500 executives were asked to identify the top challenges for their organizations over the next five to 10 years. The most critical challenge highlighted is people management (28% of the votes) and the second is innovation (20% of the votes). Is that random that people management and innovation are precisely the two most pressing challenges identified? I personally don’t think so!

The rising importance of HR innovation can also be observed on the field. Just to give an example (many other examples will follow in this blog), a Lab dedicated to HR innovation was launched some months ago in France, country in which I currently live. Supported both by public and private institutions, the “Lab HR” aims to boost and promote HR Innovation by bringing together key players in HR Innovation, such as start-ups, big companies or public actors.

Finally, a very inspiring book appeared last year : « The Rise of HR – wisdom from 73 thought leaders », by the HR Certification Institute and edited by Dave Ulrich among others. This book invites top HR leaders and experts worldwide to share their views on the main challenges HR professionals face and how this will shape the future of the HR function. It is a very inspiring book that I will probably further comment in future posts in this blog. What I find very striking is that despite the general HR orientation of the book, the words related to innovation (innovation, innovator, innovate, innovative) appear up to… 220 times ! This figure highlights, according to the world’s top HR leaders, how critical HR innovation will become in the close future. Well, enough for this first entry, I finish today’s post with an inspiring quotation of the book I just mentioned:

« HR as a profession should model what we ask organization leaders and employees to do, including (…) innovation – We should focus more on what can be than what has been, which requires innovation. Innovation can and will occur in HR services, business models, and mindsets. We should look for new, creative, and pioneering solutions to business problems » (page 4).


« Innovation is top business priority for first time, finds CIPD HR Outlook » (CIPD article, 2016) :

« What’s Next: Future Global Trends Affecting Your Organization » (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, SHRM Foundation, 2014).

 « The Rise of HR – wisdom from 73 thought leaders », book (HR Certification Institute, 2015) :