Bring In the Brains: How to Hire Innovators

Business.com / Hiring / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

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

“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?

Related Article: The 5 Most Motivating TED Talks

Ability to Play Well With Others

This is one of those “what you learned in kindergarten” maxims that, while cliché, 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.”

So ask your prospective employees:

  • 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 particularly challenging problem.

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 doing it, what obstacles they had to overcome 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 reign it in and deliver?”

How Would They Build a Box?

To find people who think outside of the box, ask them how they would put one together. Orion Jones of BigThink 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.’”

Related Article: Bell & Brin: Comparing Two Of Technology's Most Remarkable Innovators

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 specialized field, 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 achieve it. If candidates seem to lack curiosity or don’t own up to skills they might be lacking, chances are 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,” notes Nick Santillo. 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,” notes Ken Wexley and Doug Strouse for Smart CEO. If you’re going to reject a candidate because “that’s now how we do things here,” you really aren’t looking for innovative people. Which ties directly into what is absolutely essential to attract and hire innovators… "

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 to test out ideas and even fail without punishment. We started this discussion talking about how even some clichés are still good concepts.

Related Article: Leaders Innovate, Followers Increment

By the same token, companies often employ clichés, such as the need to innovate, because that’s what everyone says, but they don’t actually have a culture that nurtures and fosters innovative thinking. Does your business practice the innovation it preaches? Because if it doesn’t, word gets out and you aren’t going to get the chance to interview many innovative people because they aren’t going to apply in the first place. 

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