5 TIPS TO SPOT TRUE INNOVATORS
By Pete Maulik, Chief Strategy Officer
Walking through Times Square recently, I came upon a hot dog vendor promising something astounding. On the side of his cart hung a giant sign advertising “Hot dogs with an innovative new design!!!!”
Since I work in innovation–and am a huge fan of all things carnivorous–I had to check out this miracle of modern gastronomy.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered the “innovative new design” consisted of three elements: a bun, a cylindrical serving of meat (i.e, a hot dog) and Heinz ketchup.
Convinced the subtle nuance of his artistry must have blown right by me, I quizzed the chef about the innovative nature of the design (I let the “new” part slide because I assumed it was just marketing).
He stopped working, looked me right in the eyes, and absolutely beamed when he revealed his mysterious secret: His hot dogs came with the ketchup so you didn’t have to ask for it.
And right at that moment, I realized just how troubling the innovation craze has become. The idea of innovation is popping up everywhere. On everything. And as this beef-peddling savant demonstrated so eloquently, it can mean virtually anything.
For a company whose entire business pivots on innovation, this poses two problems. First, we run the risk of being lumped together with a wide range of “innovation firms” selling the strategic equivalent of snake oil for clients desperately in need of something new.
And second, we get bombarded with résumés all claiming to have rich innovation experience. In fact, in the last year alone, we received 4,000 resumes for just 10 positions. While some applicants clearly had experience creating products, businesses, and services that delivered groundbreaking utility, others bore a striking resemblance to the Ferran Adrià of dirty-water dogs I met on 47th street.
Sifting though applicants over the past five years has helped us figure out how to spot a genius within the genus. Hopefully, the lessons we’ve learned will be useful for other firms looking to hire true innovators.
The Keys to Hiring Effective Innovators
Our hiring philosophy is guided by two truths about the pursuit of growth through innovation and the market gap that lies between them.
The first is that there is no shareholder value in a brilliant growth strategy without the creative synthesis of tangible, compelling offerings to commercialize it.
The second is the converse–that creative pipe-dreaming disconnected from commercial realities isn’t worth much more than an inspiring afternoon.
We are on a mission to bridge this gap by bringing together historically isolated capabilities: potent commercial strategy and inspiring creativity. Or, in our parlance, the Money and the Magic.
Central to our ambition is being able to consistently attract a unique group of people who are walking embodiments of this balance. To find them, we look for people who possess five key characteristics:
1. Intellectually Restless:
Great innovators get a thrill out of defining a bold vision and then wrestling with the data, insights, barriers, and opportunities to unlock what needs to be true to get there.
2. Inspiring Rather Than Convincing:
Applicants who come from traditional consulting are often proficient at framing opportunities, yet unaccustomed to creating outcomes. We want people who can do both. Those who recognize that innovation, by its very nature, is at odds with certainty. Breakthroughs can’t be proven. They need to be envisioned and driven.
3. Proven Ability to Drive Innovation:
There’s a big difference between recognizing a great innovation and understanding how to create a great innovation. Unlike financial markets, past performance in innovation is, more often than not, an indicator of future performance.
4. Have Scaled a Peak:
We look for greatness in some aspect of an applicant’s life: successful entrepreneur, published writer, Ivy League graduate, Division I athlete, etc. The metric of success is less important than the success itself. We want people who are comfortable defining a high-order goal and then doing what it takes to accomplish it.
5. Willing to Commit to Something Bigger Than Themselves:
This is important on two levels. At a firm level, we want people who are excited by the belief that we’re on a mission to create a fundamentally new type of business. On a personal level, we want talent who believes in something that doesn’t exist today. This type of belief is the core of innovation. Therefore, we look for candidates who’ve already demonstrated their commitment to a higher-order ambition. It can be sports, religion, a philosophy, or a charity. The object of devotion is much less important than the proven willingness to invest passionately with a group of people to realize a dream.
It’s tough to find people who possess all five characteristics. But when you do, you’ve found something special. And although it’s a big call, I would argue… even more special than pre-loaded ketchup.