Fearless Thinking: The Power of Unconventional Thought

March 13, 2017

Fearless Thinking: The Power of Unconventional Thought

If the HR profession coheres around an accepted purpose, it can become more aggressive, proactive, and bold. A shared sense of purpose enables faster decision-making, less confusion and realistic expectations. The bottom line for HR is that it must be more about the bottom line. Simply stated: HR’s purpose is to drive business results. Everything else is either a means to this end or a distraction.

This realization of a shared purpose is necessary but not sufficient for HR to truly make a meaningful difference to the organization. To do so, HR must get better. It must improve its capabilities, and it must utilize its most important asset—expanding its relational capital by strengthening internal and external professional networks. As HR gets better, it can speak with more confidence, conviction and clarity.

So as HR embraces these new capabilities, how does it lead the business to drive stronger outcomes and results? This seems like a daunting challenge, but pathways can start to emerge. One way is to be more proactive, inquisitive and anticipatory; and to act before market opportunities are lost. These steps are described in No Waiting Required: HR Becomes More FearlessA second way is for HR leaders, themselves, to think in different terms, change the playing field, and challenge convention.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

Unconventional thinking is hard to do. It is, by definition, a rare occurrence; but unlike the past when HR leaders were not encouraged or, perhaps, even prepared to challenge conventional practices, it can now be a difference maker. It is the responsibility of all business leaders, and this includes HR, to act like owners, anticipate problems, seek new opportunities and create more leverage. Let’s look at four specific ways in which unconventional HR thinking can help to strengthen the business.

  1. Competition. It is standard practice in a SWOT analysis to identify the three to five major competitors for a company’s products and services. But simply naming competitors is not enough; it is important to detail the exact parameters that, for example, separate Boeing from Airbus from Lockheed Martin? Boudreau and Ramstad (2009) created the competitive differentiation tool precisely for this purpose.

Similarly, if the competitive arena shifts to talent and not products, a tool that arrays the specific employee value proposition (EVP) is crucial. Again, differentiation is the key: why exactly would a person choose to work for Ford or Chevrolet or Chrysler? One useful insight is that a company’s commercial and talent competitors may be quite different from each other. Companies often compete for technical talent, for example, with a host of companies from many different industries.

A disruptive idea: Don’t just think about traditional competitors; it is likely to be the unanticipated competitors that will have the biggest impact. A decade ago who would have imagined that Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft would be competitors. They seemed to be in separate businesses, but now all provide digital services and are extending the envelop in many ways. Even more diverse competitive landscapes pertain today. Hospitals, for example, not only compete with walk-in urgent care centers but also with uber for services that bring doctors on house calls. Warby Parker, an upstart online service, totally transformed the way eye glasses are priced and sold, typically changing the price point for high-quality eyewear from roughly $500 in a store to $95. And who would have anticipated that the largest hotelier and accommodations leader in the world, Airbnb, owns no properties. Look for the unexpected and expand traditional competitive horizons.

2. Sources of Talent. The war for talent continues to be real; and it may become even more dire if global access to talent is restricted. One problem is that companies are competing for the same receding pool of talent. Everyone is going after the same candidates and skill sets, and it becomes a shallow pool and a zero sum gain very quickly.

A different approach: Explore unconventional sources of untapped talent. Look where others are not looking. I learned this lesson firsthand as a young Air Force officer in the early 1970s. I was an application developer/programmer working on the NORAD air defense system in conjunction with a civilian contractor firm. The civilian team was always looking for new talent, and universities at that time did not offer degrees in this nascent field of application development. It turns out that this firms’s primary source for new talent was college music majors. At first glance this seems crazy, until all the parallels between music majors and application developers are delineated (i.e., both are mathematical, have their own language, use repeatable patterns, and are artistic endeavors). The director of the civilian team said that this one creative (but perhaps risky) solution gave them a two to three year advantage over their talent competitors.

Google was concerned that perhaps some of their two to three million rejected job applicants might be a source of overlooked but exceptional talent. This segment was referred to as false negatives,” and this initiative caused Google to assess more closely the qualities that lead to success. As Laszlo Bock has said “The best people don’t always look like what you would expect.” Among Google’s findings: many traditional measures of merit such as college gpa, or even a college degree itself, did not matter as much as the best predictors of future success. These best predictors are providing a work product, followed by general cognitive ability and performance in structured interviews. So indeed, candidates were being excluded for the wrong reasons, and this candidate pool needed to be reexamined. Some of Google’s very top performers were given this second chance.

Southwest Airlines has followed a similar approach, albeit for quite different jobs and skills. Their mantra of “hire for attitude and train for the rest” has served them well over the years, because it emphasizes the core foundation of a job. It also recognizes that a perfect candidate with all the right skills may be difficult to find in a shrinking talent marketplace, so why not focus on the important aspects first? When this type of thinking is followed, it can open up new well springs of talent.

3. Workforce Planning. Workforce planning focuses on preparing the company and workforce for the future. It usually answers questions such as what is needed if sales grow by 15 percent or if 50 new stores are opened next year. In terms of the workforce, these forecasts are important to calculations of capacity (numbers) and capability (skills) needed to keep pace. This plan will also likely include different scenarios such as the best and worst cases that could be encountered. While these forecasting scenarios have value, they are no longer sufficient by themselves to mitigate the significant risk that pertains in an uncertain world.

A different twist: probabilistic thinking. There are important differences between forecasts and strategic workforce planning (SWP) scenarios. Forecasts essentially extend the current state into the immediate future. SWP contemplates different possible futures beyond the current state. SWP is based on what Charles Duhigg has termed “probabilistic thinking” or what might occur.

Probabilistic scenarios deal with the unanticipated and new, such as: emerging competitors, disruptive technologies, changing economic and social patterns, different regulations, global markets demands, and possible security breaches. In other words, all the uncertainties that businesses can face every day. These uncertainties, if not anticipated, could cripple a company not prepared to address them. Consider two examples. The first occurred when an HR Business Partner from a major national railroad led a discussion with colleagues on the possible impact that 3-D printing might have on transportation costs for large goods. Since this possibility had significant revenue implication, it captured management’s attention quickly. The second example comes from a company that manufactures cigarette lighters. In a SWP session, one probabilistic scenario addressed new market opportunities from new marijuana legalization laws.

By thinking about “what might happen” HR can lead the effort to better prepare the company for uncertain futures. And as Duhigg points out, the research says that the more people think probabilistically, the better their predictions of the future and the more impactful their responses.

4. Sources of New Ideas and Innovation. It is convenient to think that innovation comes from a few brilliant people; there are, after all, only so many Steve Jobs or Thomas Edisons. It would seem natural to take the smartest people, give them the charter to develop new products, have them go off by themselves, protect their time and wait for their epiphanies. We all tend to think that the smartest people have the best ideas; and maybe they do, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more innovative products and a stronger business. Psychologists have called this the “naturalness bias” (Duckworth, 2016), and it is something we all succumb to; but it is shortsighted and wrong.

A better thought: Open it up. Perhaps the most unconventional thinking of all is the truth espoused by baseball great, Satchell Paige, Ain’t none of us as smart as all of us.  And the science supports Mr. Paige. It is clear that heterogeneous groups produce more innovative and creative ideas than similar teams that think alike. It is also true that people close to the work offer better, more practical ideas than those who are more removed. And it is clear that the number of ideas generated is the most direct path to quality thinking (Grant, 2017). So, the absolute worst action to take would be to limit perspectives and the number of people generating new ideas.

HR can provide a great service by creating ground-up innovation programs in which anyone can participate. Innovation should be crowdsourced, and not just be the province of an office, a title or certain people. Employees are much more likely to act like owners if they have a chance to truly shape the business.

An open architecture idea system is dependent on several cultural factors. It cannot just be grafted onto a rigid, hierarchical system in a week. Among the key cultural qualities that must be in place are: trust and transparency, reciprocal benefits for both the employee and company, collaborative team practices, openness to different ideas, inclusivity, and support for risks taken. When this infrastructure is in place, HR has the opportunity to be a force-multiplier that provides unconventional thinking, new perspectives and fearless action.

In his book Originals (2017), Adam Gates provides some hints on how we all can be more original. He cites a study conducted by Houseman that looked at customer service agents and why some stayed in their jobs longer than others. After testing out many ideas, he happened to look at some data that showed which Internet browser participants used when they applied for their jobs. To his amazement, data showed that people using Firefox or Chrome stayed longer (and had less absences, more sales and happier customers) than those that used Internet Explorer or Safari. And delving more into this non-intuitive finding, the researchers isolated the factors of not settling for the default browser (or the easy choice) and taking the initiative to change to something better. According to Gates, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

Fearless HR is about getting better, asking questions, challenging convention, taking initiative to move forward, and driving business results. These are the building blocks to unconventional wisdom and the pathway to its rewards. When HR seizes the initiative to think differently, it can lead the way forward.


The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at dforman1@cox.net.