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3 Secrets to Hiring Innovative Employees

“We want to be innovative. Let’s hire innovators!” For years, there’s been a debate on whether hiring innovative employees is good or disruptive for business. Can they work within constraints? Will they exhaust our resources and then move on to another company? Will the things they innovate actually be useful to us?

There are no simple yes or no answers to these questions. But, fortunately, there are resources available that can help employers devise a strategy around hiring innovative employees. We asked David J. Neff and Randal Moss, authors of the soon-to-be released book IGNITE: Setting Your Organization’s Culture on Fire with Innovation, for the secrets to becoming a company that hires innovators. Their advice is to, first, throw what you think you know about innovation out the window. Instead, start out with these three foundational points:

All Employees Can Be Innovative

You may not need to specifically hire innovative employees in order to be innovative. They may already work for you.

“Right now, one of your employees may have a brilliant idea. The employee could be an engineer, or someone in the accounting department, or it could be the grounds keeper. But—minutes from now—that idea will be lost. Why? Because your company doesn’t have the framework in place to capture it,” explains Moss.

He points to companies like Starbucks, Dell and others who offer innovation programs that are open to every employee in the company, not just those tasked with “dreaming things up” for a living. Companies like BrightIdea and Austin-based NetworkStorms offer collaboration software for companies of all sizes to create a place for employees to submit and work together on innovative ideas.

Furthermore, within their own IGNITE Framework described in their book, Neff and Moss advocate for a diverse cross-section of employees to review idea submissions.

“In our book, we describe in-depth the personalities of the people who should serve on an innovation team,” says Neff. “These may not be the people you’d expect. Throw job titles out the window and find the right combination of diverse personalities instead. An executive assistant may be a great team member because they often know everyone in the company and can forge connections quickly. The near-retirement marketing executive may be a perfect team member because they hold legacy knowledge of what has worked and what has failed in the past.”

Innovation is Messy

It’s also important to understand innovation is messy and there will be failures, but there are ways to overcome the chaos. Creating a framework is among them.

“It may come as no surprise that companies known for being innovative—Apple, Google, Tesla Motors, Amazon—have innovation programs or innovation centers within their walls,” says Moss. “But smaller companies and non-profits can—and should—have innovation programs, too.”  Ironically, research indicates these most innovative companies aren’t the same companies that spend the most on research and development (R&D). Apple is 18th among R&D spenders, far behind companies like Volkswagen, Samsung, Intel and Microsoft.

So if money isn’t what makes an innovation program great, what is? According to Neff and Moss, it’s support. “When you are managing a process that runs a 1-2 percent full success rate, the reality is that failure is going to be the norm,” they explain. “Prepare yourselves for that reality and plan on ways to engage and retain the participation of the best and most promising [idea] submitters.”

Your Culture May Need to Change First

It may be easy to think, “Build the innovation center and the innovators will come!” But that’s unlikely to happen. When you feel you are ready to go out and hire innovative employees—or to spark the innovation within the employees you already have—they may not be willing to play ball.

If that happens, says Neff and Moss, it means your culture isn’t ready to attract or foster innovative thinkers. Not yet, at least.

“Take a close look at your organizational culture and you may find it to be a shaky foundation that needs some renovation,” says Neff. “It usually comes down to a combination of how the company handles failures, how it celebrates successes and how transparent it is throughout the process. If employees or job candidates sense these factors are incongruent with innovation, they’ll hesitate before signing up.”

What questions do you have when it comes to hiring innovative employees? Have you worked to change your own company culture to attract innovative thinkers, or have you made changes in order to bring innovative thinking out among your current employees? Tell us about it!

IGNITE: Setting Your Organization’s Culture on Fire with Innovation is now available for pre-order.


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