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Growth Through Innovation Series: Fostering Innovation Through Talent Acquisition
This article is the third in a series about decoding the black boxes of innovation and incubation. Each article in the series is intended to be a self-contained unit, so please bookmark the first article in this series, so that you can find any piece you wish to see at any time.
Understanding the Types of Innovation
A previous article in this series examined the types and sources of innovation, and it will be helpful to recap some of the key points from that piece that will be central to discussion of Talent-centric innovation practices. This article will be delving into the ways in which internal sources (Talent) contribute to all three forms of innovation (Product, Process, and Cultural). The emphasis will be on the central tenet that properly incubated talent will properly incubate your business.
Hiring Innovative Talent
Talent acquisition is the single most fruitful means of tapping external sources of innovation. In the interest of keeping this article to a reasonable sum of words, narrowing the topic to specifically address the acquisition of product, engineering, and other creative talent will help keep examples directly applicable to concepts. The reason for this is, quite simply, that most people focus their talent acquisition efforts for positions like these on the more specific goal of bringing Product Innovations to the organization, as opposed to process or cultural innovations. Outside of creative talent, companies should expect to be able to apply these principles to their strategic leadership role searches as well.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the ability a company has to attract innovative and creative thinkers. These factors come into play across a wide range of the talent acquisition cycle, from digital presence and ethos, to the application process, interview process, and overall candidate experience. How do you source? Screen? Interview? What kind of courtship is there between the organization and the candidates? How do you provide feedback and closure to candidates that aren't selected for a position? A differentiated candidate experience will lead to a greater desire to reach the offer stage with a company, but understanding the pre-candidate experience is the key to getting innovative talent into the pipeline in the first place.
Delivering a High Quality Experience
There are two parts to the hiring process: making sure the candidate is the right fit for the company and position, and making sure the candidate knows that the company and position is the right fit for them. Delivering a strong pre-candidate and candidate experience is the only way to guarantee that the best talent ultimately choose to invest themselves in the company. It is important to remember that the best talent goes where they're compensated well, but that the best talent also stays where they're treated well. What many companies fail to realize is that the "treated well" part goes all the way back to the origin point, as people remember the things they liked and didn't like about the process of joining a company, and it plays into future decisions about happiness and career moves.
A tremendous amount of success with innovative talent, creative types, and strategic problem-solvers will be grounded in the image and ethos of the company's digital presence. A company's website, published content, and social media presence will be used by almost all of the best talent as a barometer by which they judge their level of interest in working for that company. Some of the primary factors that influence a candidate's opinions include the perception of resources, culture, and potential to deliver high-impact outcomes.
The best talent deserves to be compensated well, and a company's perceived pool of available resources can be one of the things that tells a candidate that they will have a long term opportunity with a given company. For startups, that means venture backing, and for more mature companies, it means steady growth, category leadership, and a strong marketing department.
"Old" digital presence and sparse social media content or engagement can be signs that a company's resource situation doesn't give it the ability to invest in marketing.
The reason companies are losing the battle for top talent to tech giants isn't entirely because of their resources. A significant portion of the creative and innovative talent pool are themselves more progressive in their lifestyle. Because it is a state of existence, creativity and innovative thinking thrive in environments that are open to, and ideally encourage, new ideas and progressive mindsets. Innovative talent is much less likely, for example, to be attracted to a company that doesn't offer flexible working arrangements. It is increasingly the case as well that top talent will assess the company's social responsibility and attitude toward the topic of social responsibility as a whole when considering their priorities.
Put simply, innovative talent wants to put their skills to use developing solutions that make a positive difference in peoples' lives. The inspiration for ideas that become market-breaking products often comes from concentration of efforts on empathizing with the problems people have, and finding the altruistically best solution that can be commercialized. Apart from being a recognized product leader, the perception of the ability to build something meaningful is perhaps the single most significant decision point between two companies offering similar compensation and benefits.
Once a candidate has decided to proceed with the consideration of a company for their next career move, the recruiting courtship can be a defining element in their perception of the company as a whole. How the company manages communication, the application process, and candidate engagement can make or break a candidate's interest in the position before the interview process even begins. From things as seemingly irrelevant as the choice of candidate management software to the frequency and personalization of communication, there are a number of ways to ensure the growth of interest from top talent after they enter the recruiting funnel.
Applying should be an easy process. Candidates who made the decision to apply should not be immediately dumped into a decades-old applicant tracking system technology. Products like Workday and Oracle (Taleo) immediately tell a candidate that whatever makes them stand out will not even be considered until an antiquated and poorly configured algorithm parses the candidate's CV into a poorly formatted digital paper CV. After scanning the result for the right combination of buzzwords and pedigree, recruiters might actually get to open some communication with the applicant.
Innovative talent is attracted to innovative companies.
Nothing says innovative like bucking the standard recruiting process when hiring for positions that demand more innovative and creative thinkers. Pedigree, qualifications, and employment history are only important to the determination of compensation at the offer stage, and the majority of those things will make themselves abundantly clear during the interview process. What a CV can't tell a recruiter or hiring manager is how a candidate thinks, solves problems, collaborates, and communicates. Start the process early; ask candidates applying to positions that require innovative thinking to answer a few short answer questions as their application. Provide the opportunity to link a portfolio or attach documents, but let that be the entire beginning of the candidate experience. Innovative talent will seize the opportunity presented by an open application, and will use it to stand out immediately.
Being in touch with candidates immediately and often is a critically important piece of convincing a candidate that the company is interested in leveraging their talents. Recruiters, when they identify a high-quality candidate, should make an effort to establish a personal connection with that candidate. Transparency and clear communication of expectations, delays, and feedback are all great, but should be part of a larger relationship based on the mutual interest of finding the right fit between the company and the candidate.
Constant communication helps to foster a sense of investment that says both parties are interested in pursuing a relationship that works out well for everyone. It also makes it possible to keep candidates interested in future opportunities when a good fit comes along at the wrong time.
Another way to deepen the investment with high quality candidates is to give them opportunities to engage with optional activities and assessments after they've submitted an application. Some options for engagement include providing other open-ended questions to answer, or sending some candidate-specific content like videos and blog posts about company culture or activities and perks that most employees really love. I have personally seen a number of companies who offer short personality-related quizzes or certain types of puzzle games as a way to build a placement profile. Really, however, any opportunity to collect additional information from the candidate that isn't related to work history should be maximized in a way that lets the candidate feel more connected as well.
In order to attract something different, a company must offer something different. In whichever way makes the most sense for each company, consideration must be given to the importance or lack thereof associated with doing things in a traditional manner. For many companies, relaxed dress codes, flexible schedules, and personalized workspaces feel like progressive benefits, when in actuality, they are becoming much closer to simply being table stakes when it comes to competing for the best and most innovative talent. As a rule, innovative talent is (outwardly or silently) opposed to the idea that anything contributes to the quality of work except for the work itself. Keeping that in mind is a great way to realign with the demands of a creative thinker.
Evaluating Candidate Creativity
Where the focus of the previous sections was on making an explicit assertion that the company is a good fit for innovative candidates, the following sections will help companies assess innovative candidates by getting to the root of their creative drive, and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate it. This will require an understanding that creative talent and innovative thinkers are going to be different, so interviewing them the same way as non-creative positions doesn't make any sense, and is a great way to guarantee that the best talent keeps going elsewhere.
Sourcing Innovative Talent
Sourcing talent is exceptionally hard, in spite of the fact that technology has opened the door to a much wider pool of applicants. This is why so many companies and recruiters take the approach of trying to siphon talent from competitors or other pedigree-rich companies as a starting point. Poaching is too common, especially considering the payoff that comes with it, and companies looking to become more innovative by bringing in creative thinkers desperately need to re-evaluate the strategy.
Commonly Used Hacks are Anything But
The truth is, for the majority of innovative talent, their employment history will be unorthodox. Basing preliminary interest on a candidate's CV is once again getting away from the point: assessing the candidate's creativity. This is one of the main reasons to move away from automated parsing technology, at least when sourcing and vetting candidates that are supposed to bring innovative ideas to the company.
Also important to note is that poaching rarely works out well for anyone involved. Among the chief concerns with poaching is actually the effect it has on product stagnation in the industry. Thinking about it critically, what is the point of hiring a competitor's asset and then asking them to provide new ideas? By nature, that person has the ability to contribute exactly what they contributed to their former company. If the goal is to have better products than the competition, why bring in the competition's people to build exactly what the competition has? People often wonder why companies and technology stagnate until a startup comes along and disrupts the major players into an acquisition. Companies can't hire the same type of person all the time, and then expect different outcomes from those people.
Further down the path of stagnant ideas is the concept of domain expertise playing a role in hiring, particularly for product managers and other strategic leads. Of the entire product management skill set, domain expertise is the most trainable, easiest to acquire, and least beneficial, but is simultaneously among the most sought after by mature companies looking to acquire top talent and build better products. It is almost guaranteed to be the case that product innovation will come far more often from people who are natural problem solvers and who have not been in the weeds for years in a particular industry. In many ways, a fresh set of well-trained eyes is better for innovation than a seasoned SME in almost every instance. Companies should be looking to hire talented thinkers from outside their industry ecosystem, with the understanding that the skills required to be an innovative voice are applicable to any domain.
Truly Hacking the Talent Search
Much like the section above about how the application process is important to the candidate experience, it is critically important to connect the dots about importance of the same practice to sourcing good talent. Open applications are one way to allow special talent to separate themselves naturally, but getting those people to apply there in the first place can be difficult if only using the standard channels and job boards. There are a number of things to consider when trying to "hack" the sourcing process:
- Post only on boards where more innovative talent exists: Indeed and Workew are great spots, but also seek out things like AngelList and startup.jobs even if you're not a startup
- Use publishing to attract talent. Much like this article series, posts and press about the company that express a culturally progressive perspective on human topics are likely to attract talent to the pre-candidate experience in droves.
- Attend hackathons: creative talent can't keep themselves away from events like these. Don't let opportunities to participate in these events pass without tapping them for talent.
- Host a hackathon: even better than attending and networking, hosting a hackathon provides direct access to every participant with a built-in warm introduction
- Sponsor problem-solving challenges: like mini hackathons, crowd-sourcing solutions for problems, even if they are not problems the company is actively trying to solve, is a great way to identify people with a natural penchant for solving problems.
- Use contract-to-hire more often. So many companies place a huge burden on recruiters and hiring managers to be confident in a "yes" decision. Using contract-to-hire for creative and innovative positions can be a great way to say yes to a candidate that doesn't have the same pedigree as another, but who exhibits the kind of talent a company wants to hire.
Once a company has positioned themselves to receive applications from innovative talent and creative thinkers, the next step is to actually give those candidates a chance to demonstrate the skills that are considered most important to the hiring manager. For most of these positions, that means being able to critically assess opportunities, set, measure, evaluate, and interpret success metrics, provide clear and comprehensive solutions in the most appropriate formats, and communicate ideas effectively. The most important aspect of candidate assessment is keeping those characteristics in mind, and making sure the interview process actually addresses the extent to which each candidate possesses those skills and exhibits those qualities.
The Interview Process
Interviews will be the only opportunity companies have to answer specific questions they have about how a candidate thinks and works before making an offer. The focus of a creative interview should be on giving candidates the ability to discuss their experience and work history through the frame of their creative process and how it lead to certain outcomes. In many cases, creative thinkers and product management candidates who are given enough information about the company ahead of the interview can be expected to discuss ideas and conceptual product development that is directly related to the job they would be hired to do. Don't miss these opportunities simply because it is harder to standardize the interview process. To attract and hire non-standard talent, companies will need to have non-standard interviews in order to provide an opportunity to demonstrate talent.
A number of companies perform unique evaluations that help them determine which candidates have the right mix of skills to be a force for innovation. We will be collecting and compiling examples from readers like you, and will share some of them in this section in the future.
Join the Conversation
This article series will be published monthly until the end of 2021, with two articles going up in September. I encourage everyone to reach out to me using "Inno Growth" in the subject line with any questions, and to subscribe to the rest of this series. I will be answering mailbag questions publicly and anonymously throughout the series, so I sincerely look forward to hearing from you.