The Challenges of Hiring for Innovation

Innovation is not what it used to be. In the 21st century, it’s more about team synergies than individual creativity, and associations must look for staff who thrive in a collaborative environment.

All of us in business have heard the mantra "innovate or die." Clearly, the challenge before us dictates a new way of thinking. Yet the challenges behind us have left most of us ill prepared for the transition.

Our socioeconomic system has become so overburdened that innovation is being stifled by our own competitive system. We look at the short term to re-create the impressive successes of the past, and we have assumed that these incremental improvements in productivity are synonymous with an innovation-driven future. But this is not the case. Small steps in productivity will not give our economy the boost it needs to move from stagnation into growth.

If innovation is the key to continued success, our businesses must shift to a system that encourages our staff to work collectively to achieve innovative outcomes. This will require a radical new way of thinking. We have, for the most part, trained and rewarded individuals based on their personal contribution to the bottom line. The idea of approaching innovation as a group effort—developing multidisciplinary teams and resources that encourage communities to work together for the good of all—is foreign to many American companies. The result is that hiring for innovation is difficult, because many of the personal qualities that drive successful team innovation efforts run contrary to business norms.

Great ideas are crucial, but they're just the springboard to an effective innovation process.

To hire for innovation is to seek out behaviors that are often repressed in a work setting. Even for the most capable interviewers, 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. Assuming skills are compatible with the job opening and attitude fits with the organization, it is important to ask questions that get  beyond stock answers.

A company looking to create an effective innovation culture should hire for the behaviors that support an "all for one" attitude. That includes accepting failure as the stepping stone for future success. Innovation is about great ideas, but it's also about the courage to explore new ideas when they run counter to the "sacred cows" of social or business practices.

Great ideas are crucial, but they're just the springboard to an effective innovation process. Taking a creative idea from the drawing board to implementation requires strong critical thinking, a grounding in reality, and the ability to think through the entire process, from inspiration to implementation to practice. Those uncomfortable with the "fuzzy front end" of innovation will struggle. Their value may be at another stage, such as formulating a plan for profitable execution of ideas.

The responsibility of leadership is to orchestrate these various roles and activities from start to finish. Effective leadership sets the tone and the strategic systems that encourage an innovative company.  Hiring for the innovative company requires a strategic understanding of all of the components necessary for putting together an effective innovation organization.

The charismatic innovator—a Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs—is a legend in American business. But in many ways, that "lone wolf" model of innovation is counterproductive. It limits our capacity to leverage the collective creativity and talents of staff to build an innovative future.

The future requires us to think beyond what we know now to what we will need to know. We must expand innovation beyond the individual to the core of our businesses: all employees. By establishing an enterprise-wide system of innovation, from the boardroom to the boiler room, we invest all employees in the company's success, encouraging them to understand their role in the overall innovation ecology. The successful implementation of a strategic hiring plan to infuse innovation into the organization from the bottom up is an essential step in helping our businesses transition from the individual successes of the past to the innovation triumphs of the future. 

David Zepponi is president of the Northwest Food Processors Association in Portland, Oregon. Email: [email protected]