Learning & Development

Learning from tech startups to increase innovation in HR

If you asked the average person, they would likely tell you that HR leaders and startup founders don’t have much in common. Startup founders are typically viewed as fast-moving risk-takers, while HR has long been perceived as highly risk-averse and resistant to change. In reality though, tech founders and People leaders have a lot more in common than it might appear at first glance. They both have to manage a large number of competing priorities at once, they both have to deal with rapidly changing objectives, and they both have to navigate all of this amidst a high degree of uncertainty.

One benefit startup founders have over HR leaders is that they typically have the final say as to what course of action the company will take, making it easier for them to make decisions quickly and remain agile. Just because some HR teams operate within the context of large companies with layers of bureaucracy though, doesn’t mean that they can’t take some of the principles of agile startup building and apply them to their own work. In support of more innovation in HR, we’ve summarized what HR can learn from startups (and vice versa!) below.

The value of agility, regardless of department or role

In the early aughts, agile software development came to the fore as a way to speed up processes and reduce time to market. It is grounded in the knowledge that every endeavor involves a high degree of uncertainty, and enables cross-functional teams to self-organize and self-manage in response to these ever-changing circumstances. It does not prioritize hierarchy or policies, but rather places the focus on responsiveness and progress towards the goal.

There has been a great deal of discussion in HR circles recently around the rigid focus on policy as a tool to solve problems. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that in order to be effective in a variety of circumstances, more innovation in HR is needed and policies must be able to flex and adapt. This is just the arena in which agile processes are primed to succeed. Additionally, agile encourages involving the end user (for HR, the employee) in the development process both early and often. By talking to customers, developers can ensure they’re only building the features that users truly want and which will have the most impact towards enhancing the digital experience. This couldn’t be more important in context of supporting employees during a year that has involved so much upheaval. The need for agile processes and innovation in HR is urgent.

Startup maxims that HR should take to heart

HR has a pressing mandate as we continue to flounder under the crushing weight of the pandemic, and it is one that will only become more urgent as we eventually begin to emerge from under the threat of this scourge. People are struggling. HR is the department tasked with supporting them through that struggle, and it is not an easy job. Accordingly, and as we’re in entirely unfamiliar territory, HR would do well to think of themselves akin to a startup where teams must effectively ‘build the plane as they fly’. This has already been the case over the past 9+ months, and realistically, it should continue indefinitely. We’ve seen the future; there’s no room or reason to go back to ‘the way we’ve always done it’. It’s time to move forward without hesitation and drive more innovation in HR.

In support of that goal, we’ve assembled a brief list of startup maxims for HR leaders to begin mulling over as they work towards a more agile approach to their field and more innovation in HR:

  • If you’re not embarrassed of your first product, you launched too late. This is perhaps the recommendation most at odds with how HR has historically operated. In the past, HR has typically given projects excessively long lead times in order to ensure that every ‘T’ is crossed and ‘I’ is dotted before rolling anything out to employees. For instance, most large companies’ digital transformation timelines were upwards of two years before lockdowns forced them to accelerate that to two weeks. Waiting to roll out initiatives until they’re ‘perfect’ just increases the likelihood that whatever you’re launching won’t meet employee needs. Get it out there earlier, get feedback, and iterate on it to actually make it perfect.
  • Fail fast. Doing small tests of innovative solutions rather than undertaking giant, sweeping projects can help HR better serve the entire employee population more quickly. If you want to try a new innovation in HR but you’re not sure it will work, devise a small test with a limited subset of employees, and see what they think. If it doesn’t work, you will only have wasted a minimal amount of time and resources. If it does work though, you won’t have spent years wondering whether it might be useful with nothing to show for it, and instead will have an already completed pilot to justify moving forward with it.
  • Your most unhappy customers are your biggest source of learning. HR has typically viewed troublesome employees as problems to be solved rather than opportunities to be seized. Maximize the impact of your employee surveys and particularly of your exit interviews to identify critical needs that aren’t being met. Turn dissatisfaction and disengagement around by jumping on every chance to learn and improve. Really begin to think of your employees as customers of your services and products, and make sure that every one of them would give your ‘company’ a 5-star review.

HR has had a lot to deal with this year, and many antiquated systems and approaches proved fallible in the face of the onslaught. Now is the time to take a page from the agile technology startup’s book and prioritize ‘user’ feedback; build responsive, cross-functional teams; and move quickly and innovatively. One way we’re doing that at Workrowd is with the upcoming launch of our Global ERG Network, a new community for ERGs, BRGs, and Diversity Councils to network and learn across the globe. Packed full of best-in-class resources, exclusive events, and on-demand analytics, you can learn more in our post here, on our page here, or at our upcoming webinar on 12/15. As always, you can also reach us directly at