4 Mistakes To Avoid When Hiring Innovators

4 Mistakes To Avoid When Hiring Innovators

I’ve talked at length about how companies aiming to attract innovators to their organization shoot themselves in the foot, because the culture they have doesn’t embrace innovation. Still, let’s ask: How do you hire innovators?

To help answer that question from the perspective of an innovator, the University of Texas conducted a study last year and they asked me to take part. They’ve yet to share the results with me, but I’m jumping the gun and sharing my thoughts with you.

Innovators are alike in many ways (check out the blog post), so I won’t go into their personality and skill set; instead I’ll dig into how to hire them. Hiring innovators requires a different mindset and approach.

Here are four mistakes to avoid when hiring innovators:

1. Don’t look for predictable results in their résumé

Without context, employers will hire innovators the same way they’d hire anyone else. They’ll look at personality, attitude and skill set but the way you evaluate all of these is different. Typically employers look at someones resume for evidence they have the experience and competence to execute the job they’re hiring for. They’re looking for predictable results; but innovation isn’t predictable. And rarely does a job seeker ever post their failures on a résumé, even though there are, for fear of rejection; everyone wants to seem perfect.

Also, just because someone claims to know design thinking and lean startup methodologies doesn’t mean innovation will automatically happen; template thinking is not innovation.

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process. Hire for future potential; not previous experience.

2. Don’t confuse variety with inconsistency

An innovator’s resume doesn’t look like a traditional one. For example, you’ll see a variety of activities that have nothing to do with each other (breadth of experience rather than more of the same). For an employer, this may look like inconsistency; it isn’t. Innovators are generalists, and breadth of experience is what creativity and a very active brain looks like.

Remember: experience and expertise are enemies of innovation.

3. Don’t see failure as a failed person

Innovators will have successes, but they’ll also have bombs. It’s the nature of the beast. Bombs can happen for many reasons, but when evaluating you have to evaluate the person; not the context, because there are things you can control and stuff you can’t.

Think about it, are you looking for people who will shy away from ambiguity or embrace it? Every innovator understands that ambiguity is normal, and they have to figure out a way forward. This requires grit and resilience; two things that employers rarely look for.

As an employer, you have to focus on the things a person can control (attitude and skills). For example, suppose you get a job seeker who’s startup he was a part of failed. It doesn’t mean the job seeker is a failure. Startups fail for many reasons: timing being the most important.

And the opposite holds true, just because someone had success doesn’t mean they’ll do so again. This game is unpredictable. But you’re looking for signs that the job seeker has learned from their failures, so they won’t repeat similar mistakes again.

You have to evaluate the thinking and actions of a person during their time. How were they approaching certain challenge? What outcomes were they aiming for and what needed to be true for that to happen? What role were they playing in the whole scheme of hings?

In terms of skill you are looking for people who know how to navigate and reduce risk, not avoid it completely; entrepreneurs are natural at this.

4. Don’t get enamored by someone with a perfect track record

Goes with the above points, but worth repeating: people who seem perfect rarely are. Anyone who doesn’t make new mistakes isn’t doing anything challenging; thus not an innovator.

5. Don’t judge an innovator by their job title

Companies, especially smaller ones, will expect employees to fill several roles including innovation / new product development. Product and even brand managers can be expected to grow their lines and brands through innovation, which can demand most of their time.

Additionally, having the word innovation in your job title doesn’t mean anything. The catalyst for innovation is a combination of frustration, dissatisfaction and insight that drives somebody to act differently because they think and believe there’s a better way to do something.

A person in sales, marketing, finance, management, engineering can come up with and act on an idea to improve something; their title doesn’t determine their attitude and ability to do so. Many innovators inside established and bureaucratic organizations succeed in spite of the obstacles put in their way; you’re looking for this trait.

6. Don’t overlook the many important skills that are needed for successful innovation

Innovation is not a template and process you follow to the T, there are many skills necessary: leadership, project management, finance, research and communication skills.

New projects led by innovators can require leadership of large cross-functional teams; this is an important skill to look for.

Innovation isn’t a job

Innovators don’t see what they do as a job, but as a challenge that pulls them and brings out the best in them. There’s a reasons why talented people leave their job to start their own thing, usually inspired by a lackluster experience, and compete with their previous employer with a new and better offering.

Remember: Innovation isn’t a job or a mandate; it’s a mindset put into action.


Bottom line: Innovators are looking for a challenge, not a job. Getting the most out of themselves is what drives them. They’re naturally attracted by any challenge that doesn’t have a clear path forward. So rather than evaluate them on predictable results, evaluate them for predictable attitude and flexible approach to overcoming challenges.

Update: Added two more mistakes recommended by Steve Skotzke through LinkedIn.


Also published on Medium.