Not all of them are household names — yet — but Fast Company’s 2018 Innovation by Design award winners are well on their way to being recognized disruptors. What each of these organizations shares isn’t a product or design methodology. Instead, it’s the kind of team members they hire. And those are team members who challenge the status quo.
For instance, the architects at NBBJ have reimagined the corporate workspace in their biophilic design of Amazon Spheres, a greenhouse-turned-office. And a group of Microsoft employees expanded the global app user base by developing Seeing AI, an app for the visually impaired. When it comes to innovation, employees and their ideas matter. Employing the right workers translates to massive evolutions in industry solutions and game-changing ideas.
“The team is something we pay a lot of attention to — particularly how passionate they are,” says Amy Gu, managing partner at venture capital fund Hemi VC, who was recently named one of Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 winners. “Sometimes ideas come from a random thing in your life. But that random idea will somehow become a big idea if you have the right people with the right passion.” Finding people with the right passion requires a recruitment process that goes beyond the conventional to uncover a cadre of winners eager to rattle a few cages.
Interviewing for Innovation, Not Just a Skill Set
Traditional interviewing techniques may put experts in seats, but those experts may not possess the necessary attributes to innovate. A great example is curiosity, which leads people to constantly ask the “why” in everything. “Being curious” is hardly a résumé staple, yet it’s integral to forging a new path.
Another seldom-considered characteristic among team members who can’t stop innovating is a general eccentricity. Perhaps such people have unusual hobbies, or they might be moody creatives. Often, these folks bring outlooks that can totally transform the way a business operates.
Why don’t more personnel managers look for these and other out-of-the-box traits, such as multidisciplinary thinking or unflagging excitement? According to 88 percent of executive participants in an academic study, innovators are a crucial component for competitiveness. Yet recruiters generally aren’t trained to interview in an innovation-focused way; thus, the most inventive candidates may slip between the cracks.
In order to ensure your company doesn’t squander the opportunity to hire for this competitive advantage, you need to change the way you investigate potential hires. Use these four tactics to identify the next innovators you invite to join your team:
1. Explore a candidate’s curiosity.
Predicting candidates’ curiosity is inquisitive work. You have to drill down deeply to learn about their history of imagination on and off the job. This can be accomplished by asking about interesting or unusual campaigns they spearheaded or how they solved a particularly puzzling problem.
As you listen to their responses, look for nontraditional (versus conventional) styles of thinking. Do they seem like by-the-book rule followers who need guidance at every step? Or do they seem to thrive when dealing with the unknown or unpredictable?
2. Build a team of diversified hobbyists.
Even if your company exists to develop enterprise software, you shouldn’t just hire computer science grads. Why? All you’ll get is more of the same. However, if you hire someone who offers a different perspective, you might have a chance at upending your industry.
Outside interests tell a lot about people, from their energy levels to their values. A diverse team will naturally bring unusual concepts to the table, so make sure to ask candidates about new things they’ve learned and what they like to do in their free time.
3. Seek out naturally thirsty learners.
Ready to jettison the applicant with four degrees because the candidate seems overqualified for the position? It’s time to reconsider. Many times, people who obtain multiple degrees aren’t especially money-motivated; they’re propelled by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which makes them an asset to your team.
They’re also trained to repurpose existing facts into bold new approaches. According to Isaiah Hankel, CEO and founder of Cheeky Scientist, an industry training platform for academic Ph.D.s, constant learners will bring innovation in droves. “By definition, a master’s degree of any kind requires the recipient to master a field,” explains Hankel. “On the other hand, a Ph.D. requires the recipient to add to a field.” Remember that multidisciplinary thinking I mentioned? These candidates have it baked right in.
4. Uncover how an applicant strategizes.
During your next interview, consider having the candidate perform a task alone or in tandem with your employees — maybe even alongside other interviewees. You’ll not only get a better understanding of how he or she works collaboratively, but you’ll have a better sense of his or her method of strategically solving an issue.
You’re looking for a personality filled with imagination and creativity plus an approach different from your own. After the experiment or presentation, debrief the applicant. Discuss his or her thought processes. You’ll gather insights you couldn’t get just by asking interview questions.
Even if your startup isn’t determined to earn an innovation award, you can still boost your competitive prospects by putting innovators on the payroll. Each new viewpoint represents a chance to take a quantum leap forward.
Serenity Gibbons is a former assistant editor at The Wall Street Journal. The local unit lead for the NAACP in Northern California and a consultant helping to build diverse workforces, Serenity enjoys gathering insights from people who are creating better workplaces and maki…