Companies Don’t Innovate; People Do

By Anand Tamboli

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When you are hiring people, some characteristics are useful for particular roles and not for others. Knowing what to look for besides just the hard and soft skills is very important. The article describes the characteristics that tick people working in innovation. So, when you are hiring for innovation, these are the ones you should be looking for.

Being innovative means doing things differently or doing things that have never been done before. And doing so needs a different mindset and skillset. But the fact remains, companies do not innovate; people in those companies do.

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The sourcing and development of innovative ideas are essential to a businesses’ long-term success. Therefore, hiring managers need to keep innovation in mind when reviewing candidates. Candidates possessing innovative qualities and experience contribute to a successful company. They directly impact the work culture and many business practices.

However, hiring for innovation is different from all other hiring criteria, processes, and decisions. This article talks about at least two dozen characteristics of employees who are best suited for innovation.

1. They are not yes-masters

Employees who are not ready to say ‘no’ when needed do not fit the innovation team quite well. Innovation requires an ability and willingness to challenge the status quo. People who are ‘yes masters’ lack this ability.

2. They are not nay-sayers

Employees who are constant nay-sayers impede innovation at best. Their negative outlook and attitude can stifle innovative ideas and innovation overall. These candidates may be suited in more cautionary positions where a negative outlook may work as an asset. Unfortunately, innovation is not one of them.

3. They are marathon runners, not sprinters

Innovation is not a short-term game. You are not developing an off-the-shelf product or an already known process. Working on something that has not been tried before needs several iterations, trials, errors, failures, and whatnot. People who prefer shorter projects and sprints are not well suited for innovation because they might get bored sooner and lose interest.

4. They are self-starters and independent thinkers

Innovation often requires independent thinking and taking the initiative. Someone who prefers waiting on managers or leaders for taking action may slow down the innovation faster. Moreover, if they cannot think independently, it is unlikely that they will work on original and creative ideas.

5. They are first-principle thinkers

If you were to check whether someone is the first-principle thinker or not, try this. Ask them a question and demand reasoning for their answer. See how they reason their thinking. The first-principle thinkers almost always will start from the ground up or fundamental principles.

On the contrary, others will do so with associative reasoning. Associative reasoning and heuristics are good approaches for faster decision-making. However, when it comes to innovation, they often result in a lack of originality.

6. They are creative thinkers or better implementers

While creative thinking gets the limelight in innovation, rigorous implementation is what makes it successful. So, you may find it difficult to find a candidate who has both capabilities. It is not impossible for some candidates, but it is surely rare. Having a balanced team is essential, and that means you need both types of candidates. Decide what you want in your innovation team and hire accordingly. Expecting both characteristics from the same candidate might not be an effective strategy.

7. They have excellent communication skills

It is often said that better innovators are not better communicators, which in my opinion is just a red-herring. For any innovation to succeed, it must get communicated well at all stages and to everyone. So, checking for excellent communication skills is going to be highly important. See how the candidate responds when you challenge their ideas and how they convince or try to convince you.

8. Be okay with outside-sector experience

This point is perhaps one of the most counterintuitive ones on the list. Most people would think that having industry experience is a plus as that can help in innovating further. However, in my experience, it often backfires.

Institutional blindness is a real thing. It means that once someone has stayed in a particular industry for a long time, they often develop an ability to ignore the most obvious things, which is often detrimental to the innovation. Institutional blindness may be useful when it comes to speed, efficiency, and productivity. However, specific to innovation, it works against that.

9. They are good at adapting

Adaptability is an important trait in general, and it is even more important in the innovation game. The ability to respond to continuously changing situations and unexpected outcomes is the key to running successful innovation projects. Why not change your hiring methodology and see how people adapt to your process. That itself will filter a few candidates.

For example, instead of following a traditional hiring process of tests and interviews, do something different like running a contest or asking them to do something. Put the candidates in a novel scenario and ask them to make decisions. When you change the hiring methodology, only those who are good at adapting will excel and thrive. Rest will fall off eventually and make it easier for you to select.

10. They are more curious and less judgmental

Curiosity is often the beginning of the innovation journey. If someone is judgmental and has already made up their mind, they are unlikely to investigate the matter further. And if that is the case, you are not going to see anything innovative.

On the contrary, curiosity often leads to the quest to know more and find out ‘Why?’ This quest then can result in deeper dive into the root causes of the matter at hand, or it may pose a ‘Why not?’ question. Both ways, it leads to innovation. Hire curious people for innovation and avoid judgemental ones.

11. Their resume most likely has a lot but can be confusing

Over the last two decades, I have noticed that most (or almost all) innovators have quite a non-linear career path. That often means that the traditional resume format does not do any justice when documenting that path. Suppose you come across a slightly off resume, which does not look like a traditional one; probe further.

You may be dealing with a cross-functionally experienced person. Although their career path looks non-linear and does not make sense at first glance, talking to them can often give you a better perspective. In most cases, they can draw a connecting line between all those experiences. And that can help you make the decision.

12. They are good at problem-solving but better at problem finding

Yes, problem-solving is a commonly revered skill for all cadre of employees. And when you deal with well-defined problems, that’s all you need from someone. However, finding better problems to solve is becoming a forgotten skill. When you have someone who can find better problems to solve, it can open up a new potential opportunity for your business. It may help you tap into a completely new market, which can be a serious advantage for your business.

Testing a candidate for problem-finding ability is relatively easier. Of course, you want a meaningful problem finder who is willing to solve the problem too, not a complainer who finds faults but does nothing to fix them.

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