Why letting go can make HR great again

Forgetting what you know and embracing a new mindset can push your business towards success, says one internationally renowned business professor

“Before you can create, you must forget,” said leading academic, Vijay Govindarajan.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Govindarajan talked about how it is extremely difficult for managers to “unlearn” entrenched mindsets which have lost relevance in a modern business – ultimately drawing from his experience as the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School.
“It’s hard for managers, especially those who excel in the current system, to explore new unchartered terrain,” he said.
In order for an organisation to succeed, Govindarajan stressed that it is crucial to let go of old, outdated components of how that company runs.
“These decisions are among the hardest ones that executives have to make,” he said, “but there are some proven ways to approach an organisation’s forgetting challenge.”
One of the biggest challenges is if the entire company has to forget what made it great in the past. To address this task, he recommends the following two methods:
  • Catch your company’s attention through something big. “A company’s past is often deeply rooted in its culture, comprising habitual processes, rituals, and belief systems. That’s why forgetting the past can require shocking the culture out of its torpor.”
  • Create win-win incentives. “Incentives are a powerful lever to convince people they need to forget the old ways.”
In the event only part of the organisation has to forget – say your HR department is shifting its primary strategies – it may be useful to create a dedicated team to tackle the problem.
“Give them a fresh start,” Govindarajan said. “Ideas for nonlinear businesses should not be weighed down by core business rules or expectations.”
For smaller changes, he suggested other strategies such as practising portfolio reconfiguration or allowing managers to act locally to get rid of outdated behaviours, systems and processes.
“By understanding your company’s forgetting challenge in this way – how big is the challenge and how much of the organisation is involved – you can develop targeted solutions like [these],” he said.
“You must have the courage to see the many ways in which the dominant logic of your legacy business can undermine your future business – and help your organisation let go of what made it great.”
Related stories:
Why you shouldn’t share your grand HR vision
A beautiful epiphany: Corporate culture in a new light
Tackling innovation with the MasterCard HR team

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