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Bring in the Brains: How to Hire Innovators

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Companies are innovative only if they employ innovative people. What characteristics are predictors of innovation?

  • Innovation is key to progress in any organization. The success of an organization depends largely on its ability to develop innovative products.
  • Companies that encourage innovation in the workplace report lower employee turnover.
  • Innovative employees come up with solutions to their challenges rather than complaining about them.

"The first thing is you have to hire the right people, and the question is, how do you hire the right people? ... We're looking for certain characteristics that allow for innovation." – Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and CEO of Warby Parker

Needless to say, innovative companies need innovative employees. What characteristics should you look for that are likely predictors of innovative thinking?

Do they play well with others?

This is one of those "what you learned in kindergarten" maxims that, while cliche, is nonetheless key to identifying a candidate's innovation potential. While we like to think of innovators such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs as lone wolves, "the myth of the solo entrepreneur is just that, a myth," notes Soren Kaplan, founder of consulting firm Innovation Point. "Today's complex environment isn't about going it alone … most innovative companies create networks of partners to create and deliver their products and services."

Ask your prospective employees these questions:

  • How they've worked in team situations
  • What they achieved working in a team
  • What they contributed to the success of team efforts
  • How they assembled a team or became part of a team to solve a particular challenge

How have they made a difference?

Innovation involves different ways of thinking that leads to different results. Ask your candidates what they did to change something, how they went about it, what obstacles they had and how they overcame them (or didn't).

What would they do with lots of cash?

ZipRecruiter recommends asking candidates what they would do at their job if given $100,000 and four weeks to spend it. "This question points to their innovation and strategy. It will also tell you how fast they can think on their feet and if they can accurately forecast a budget. Thinking big is a good quality, but can this candidate rein it in and deliver?"

How would they build a box?

To find people who think outside of the box, ask candidates how they would put one together. Orion Jones of Big Think recommends asking prospective employees how they assemble furniture from directions. "Their response will tell you how guided by convention they are. An innovative thinker might say, 'I look at the picture on the box, then begin.'"

What are their outside interests?

In "Hiring an Innovative Workforce: A Necessary Yet Uniquely Challenging Endeavor" published by the Human Resource Management Review, the authors note the value of "broader forms of knowledge … to tie previously unrelated concepts together" as an underpinning of innovative thinking.

They cite, for instance, Einstein's interest in music as essential to his thinking about mathematics and physics. If your candidates don't appear particularly well-rounded, no matter their expertise in a narrow specialty, don't expect them to come up with anything particularly innovative.

Jeffrey Baumgartner recommends looking for "evidence of diversity and unusual points in education, hobbies and elsewhere. A marketing manager who has a degree in philosophy followed up by an MBA will probably be more creative than the marketing manager who has a business administration degree and an MBA."

What don't they know? 

Recognizing what you don't know is a good starting part to facilitate innovation. Knowing how to find out what you don't know helps you achieve it. If candidates seem to lack curiosity or don't own up to skills they might be lacking, they might not be particularly innovative.

"The most successful team members are constantly learning new ways to solve current problems and seeking out new problems that need to be solved," said Nick Santillo in a HubSpot blog post. Ask your interviewees about the problems they didn't expect to face and how they solved them. 

Be open to surprises.

"To find the innovators who will make the right kind of change in your business, stop searching for people who do things the way you do them," said Ken Wexley and Doug Strouse for Smart CEO. If you reject a candidate for an idea they have because "that's not how we do things here," you aren't really looking for innovative people. 

Provide an innovative culture.

Ironically, according to David Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association, "To hire for innovation is to seek out behaviors that are often repressed in a work setting. Even for the most capable interviewer, it can be a challenge to explore beyond a job prospect's individual innovative capabilities to get a sense of potential group innovation behavior, especially if those behaviors were not encouraged by earlier employers."

Time for a little self-reflection here. The problem in finding innovative performers is not just whether they were allowed to be innovative in their previous roles, but whether you provide an innovative workplace where employees can test out ideas and even fail without punishment.

We started this discussion by talking about how even some cliches are still good concepts. By the same token, companies often employ cliches, such as the need to innovate, because that's what everyone says, but don't actually foster and nurture innovative thinking in their cultures. Does your business practice the innovation it preaches? If it doesn't, word gets out, and you won't get the chance to interview many innovative people, because they won't apply in the first place. 

What are the benefits of innovative employees?

  • Problem-solving skills: To stay ahead of the competition, companies need to come up with innovative products. Innovative employees develop creative solutions to the organization's challenges. According to Work It Daily, the experience of resolving complex work challenges creates a positive work environment and increases employee productivity.
  • Identifying new opportunities: Innovative employees help your organization identify new opportunities to grow and develop. Creative employees often show commitment and are proactive in exploring other opportunities the company may benefit from.
  • Creative thinking: By employing innovative employees, your company can critically analyze its products and services, identifying issues before the products reach the market. This saves the company from losses or mistakes that give it a bad reputation.
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