Facing more challenges than at any other time in the history of our function, HR leaders must focus on the problems we’re solving, not our familiar solutions.

To make it in human resources, in which we are known for our agility in handling unusual and delicate interpersonal situations, one needs to quickly learn how to be an adept tactical problem solver. Nobody in the office can clean up a mess, work themselves out of a jam or be quite so clever as HR can. And if you were to ask many HR professionals what their strengths are, “problem-solving” would likely be near the top of their lists. Our strength in one-off issue resolution, however, often doesn’t translate into being able to address larger systemic organizational challenges.

Author Ben Brooks

One of my absolute favorite quotes comes from Albert Einstein, who once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Yet, in my experience, HR can tend to get complacent in relying on the trusted solutions we are familiar with, even as the problems we are solving continue to evolve, fester and grow. We restrain ourselves by relying on old methods while understanding less and less about the root causes of today’s fast-moving people challenges.

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Related: How HR has the ‘power to shape the future of work’

Of course, it’s understandable why we go back to the same solutions, whether they be a process, vendor, consultant, technology, etc. Our brains are supercomputers themselves, constantly seeking patterns where we identify a recognizable threat (in this case, an organizational challenge) and then instantly recalling what to do based on prior experience. The problem with this is that our brains (and, as a result, our HR and management teams) are more broadly relying on past experience and patterns to address things that may have never happened before at the same sense of scale, complexity or severity as at the current moment—such as keeping employees safe from contracting COVID-19, engaging staff in a compelling employee experience while working remotely or addressing persistent gender and racial bias and discrimination that we’ve long pretended was largely not much of an issue anymore.

Oftentimes, when we think of innovation or creativity inside of organizations, it involves groovy studio spaces where our best and brightest talent (and management consultants) come together to experiment and opine about the future. As a tech founder, however, my own experience of innovation has been far less sexy or glamorous. It requires jumping into the trenches to understand what the hell is going on, at a granular level. Usually, we’re surprised—and even wrong (pro tip: mimic scientists who flatly declare that their hypothesis has been disproven)!

This often means experimenting without any past case study or guarantee that our solutions will work, and it requires endless resiliency to play the proverbial game of “Marco Polo,” in which we’re getting ever closer to achieving the goal, but at the same time, we always feel like the target is moving further away from us, in spite of all our progress.

This is largely why HR doesn’t zero-base our centers of expertise on headcount, vendor bases, processes, tech platforms or other solutions. In case you’re not familiar, zero-basing is often used by CFOs and financial teams to create financial plans and budgets, wherein nothing is carried over from prior years and each item must be justified, each and every time. There is a good reason we don’t do this—it’s exhausting! Not to mention, our colleagues in IT, legal, procurement and finance often create processes that present massive, painful disincentives for us to make changes; high switching costs that bind us to whatever previously got through their gauntlet. But we’re going to have to break through this red tape if we are to ever truly innovate. And it all starts with getting a better sense of what’s actually going on with our people.

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One interesting, simple formula I once heard was “start with What + Why, then figure out the How.” The role of senior executives and management is to define the “What” (objectives, goals) and “Why” (context, mission) and then —ideally—delegate or empower the “How” to teams that are closer to the actual work and who, as a result, know more about the problem at hand. When I was being trained as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt early in my career while working at Lockheed Martin, I learned the term “gemba,” which in Japanese roughly translates to “the actual place.”

The idea was to get executives to leave their conference rooms and cushy offices in high-rises and literally go down to the factory floor because that was where the best information about the problems resided—with the people facing those problems each day. The most innovative ideas could emerge on the floor, once teased out with effective facilitation and encouragement.

When’s the last time you were on HR’s proverbial factory floor? The higher up you are in your organization, or the longer you’ve been there, the more out of touch you might be with today’s employee experience and unmet needs.

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Gather more current and contextual information, then hunker down and force yourselves to come up with many potential solutions. Challenge yourself to be curious, creative—even courageous! Google is your friend here, as are your colleagues in other industries, geographies and company sizes or growth phases. Include a rich diversity of perspectives beyond your fellow HR colleagues too. Don’t stop until you’ve truly considered a multitude of solutions—and not just an RFP to compare lookalike tech platforms, but truly imaginative thinking, such as not using technology at all. One book I highly recommend to help push your thinking is A Beautiful Constraint, which is perfect for us HR folks.

So now, as we begin to enter fall and many of us are preparing budget requests (by the way, you should likely be asking for a LOT more budget next year, given everything that we’re dealing with and counted on for) and creating annual plans and goals, commit to bring fresh thinking to your seat at the table. Challenge your teams to slow down and make sure that everyone has a shared and nuanced understanding of the problems we’re trying to solve. Demand broad thinking and inquiry into many solutions, and create the air cover for your teams to be able to try new things that may not necessarily be sure bets. After all, if we are not willing to fail or to embrace uncertainty, then we’ll surely never learn or innovate.

Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach’s Corner column for HRE.

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