Two Ways to Hire Effective Innovators

Peter Maulick

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Peter Maulick for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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These days, you’re as likely to see “innovative” on any given job description as you are to see “strong communication skills” or “team player.” But how do you hire innovatorsWhat exactly are you looking for, and more importantly, how do you identify the ability to innovate?

Take this anecdote: Our innovation consultancy recently played host to a rather unusual job interview when a candidate came to us after selling his company, a premium brand of Cachaca, the Brazilian liquor). While still in college, the candidate conceived the brand, sourced it, packaged it, imported it, and distributed it. For his interview, he hosted a Cachaça happy hour in our office, bringing in a bartender and the fresh fruits required to prepare Brazil’s signature cocktails.

We hired him on the spot, and not because we were tipsy. His creativity raised the bar (pun intended) on our hiring process.

We recognized that when seeking an innovator, you don’t just want to know if a candidate has the skills you need — you want to see how those skills are applied to real-world commercial objectives. Having ideas is only part of what makes an effective innovator. Being able to execute on an idea — transforming blue-sky notions into tangible offerings— is the other half of the innovation equation. No matter how big the idea is: if it isn’t doable, it’s not an innovation.

Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen identify five “discovery skills” that make for innovative mindsets: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.

Detecting these skills in isolation is a good sign, but it says little about a candidate’s innovation capability. How these skills are leveraged is the key to execution, and the challenge is to design an interview process that tests the application of these core skills.

Our Cachaça candidate’s presentation demonstrated these skills to us, but how do we assess candidates who don’t come in with a full bar? Here are two hiring exercises designed to apply the innovator’s discovery skills towards real-world commercial objectives, going beyond idea generation all the way to revenue generation:

From Discovery to Strategy: This exercise simulates the process of unlocking market opportunities through innovation — ask for a solution to a real-life problem. For example, we’ll ask candidates to develop an innovation strategy for the CEO of a major beverage company, synthesizing insights from the market conditions outlined in a beverage industry trend report (which we provide). Once the candidate has devised a strategy, have her present it to your team as if she is presenting to the CEO. Evaluate her not only on the quality of the insights driving the strategy, but on her understanding of the complexities surrounding its implementation and her ability to determine the commercial potential of the idea. Is it just a good idea, or is it a viable, sustainable business?

From Discovery to Invention: Try an exercise in applied invention I like to call “You in a Bottle.” Have candidates invent a drink based on core attributes of their own personalities, and then design an offering for it. Their ability to glean consumer insight from within is crucial to the task. The offering should at once communicate the candidate’s individuality and appeal to a broader market. Most importantly, the candidate should define a profitable market for his product.

With exercises like these that evaluate an innovator’s ability to make the leap from idea to innovation, you can be sure you’re building teams capable of turning transformational innovation into the repeatable, scalable discipline that every business needs.

And that’s something we can all toast to.

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Pete Maulik is Chief Operating Officer and Head of Commercial Strategy at Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consultancy based in New York. He has spoken and written extensively on innovation.

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