Case Studies: Visual Synectics – Engagement and HR Strategy

Working with a manufacturing company that supplies a well-known brand of beverages across the UK. Over 44,000 staff, approx. 130 staff within the HR function alone!

The company wanted to re-launch the HR function with a new strategy – encouraging all staff to engage with strategy, to position HR as a key, respected, function across the entire company.

Problem Owner: HR Director

Key Definition of Creativity:

Generation of ideas which are both novel and useful

Problem as Defined

How can we guarantee world class execution of every aspect of the HR process?

Problem Exploration Technique

Boundary Examination

Problem As Understood

In what way might we guarantee that absolutely everyone in HR has a total, complete understanding of what world class execution looks like?

Note: the redefinition massively raises the bar, above the mental blockages, demanding breakthrough thinking if we are to find a real solution

Idea Generation


Now, Synectics is a technique which is based in provocation – stimulating the brain by distracting it away from the well-worn traditional thinking patterns, focusing on novelty in the first instance. A random stimulus is used to generate this provocation – in this variation of the technique simply using a random physical object, tabled by the facilitator and completely unexpected by anyone else (thereby assuring a lack of preparation in advance – which would otherwise inevitably steer the team into “more of the same”. Presented with this object, the team initially explore its characteristics or attributes, initially in isolation from the issue at hand (i.e. the Problem as Understood).

Then, this exploration process is used as the starting point for solving the Problem as Understood, seeking something within the image that makes one look differently at how to address the issue. Then follow the thought …. trying to find the germ of an idea, something that the problem owner had never thought of before (i.e. novel), but that they can see how it might work (i.e. useful).

Provocation – Olympics

  • Elite Athletes are world class
  • Competitive – Winners
  • Honour to compete as an Olympian
  • Held up as an example to all
  • People volunteer just to be involved, part of the event

How does an athlete know what it takes to be World Class?


Drawing upon this analysis, how might one then translate the thinking into something Novel and Useful for the beverage company?

Generate competition. Break down all “aspects” of HR into sub elements, then determine performance grid against each. Need to establish transparent system of explicit definitions – top grade defining “World Class”. The only acceptable grade is World Class – anything less must be en route to World Class.

Publish HR staff league tables – open, honest, transparent …. might feel a tad brutal, but the spirit behind it is all about competition and celebration of performance. Think Olympics – poor performers are not cast out – they merely need to train harder!

Note that not everyone involved in the Olympics is an athlete – some are volunteers, some are administrators, coaches, nutritionists, fitness specialists, etc., but all in total support for a truly elite event. So, some HR staff might not be the elite front-line deliverers, but they must offer World Class support.

Could establish the “HR Olympics” – competitive event to test delivery skills in the various aspects of HR identified above. Might invite other local HR practitioner from outside the company – surely word will spread that you guys are doing exceptional things – attracting and retaining the best!

Elites get Lottery finding – less than elites do not. How could this translate to funding for personal development? You want to pick the best – then invest to make them World Class. If people aren’t motivated to be World class – why invest in them?

Consultants aspire to work for Bain & Co – the elite of the elite. I am guessing it is not a very tolerant environment for under-executers. The best HR practitioners in the world should aspire to work for this company!

Test it; if fully implemented, would the above drive World Class execution of every aspect of HR? Of course. Would it guarantee that absolutely everyone in HR has a total, complete understanding of what World Class execution looks like? Damn right!

Fresh Provocation – Waterfall


  • Awesome
  • Multi-sensory

Novel and Useful:
Define the targeted perfect, awesome, culture – exploring what this would look and feel like. Needs to be hugely attractive to all – industrial “tourists” would flock to come and see what you have achieved!

Fresh Provocation – Orchestra


  • Conductor essential
  • Teams of experts with local leader
  • All working to same Score – conductor provides focus

Novel and Useful:
The initiative needs a “conductor”, someone who is clearly visible, providing the guidance for all, watching over the whole. Need to identify who is playing this role. Everyone is visible – no hiding place – everyone on show.

Return on Investment:

44,000 staff – annual payroll approx. £1bn. Suppose that delivering a genuinely world class HR strategy could deliver a 5% improvement in productivity …. translates to £50m on the bottom line. If we worry that such an improvement is too adventurous (… errr …. Letting ourselves off the hook, I think!) – if only 1%, then this translates to £10m on the bottom line.

A truly HUGE return on investment! Surely worth taking the above novelty quite seriously!