Hiring for Innovation

Creating a culture of innovation starts with your hiring process. Hiring for innovation presents new challenges to traditional hiring practices and requires nothing less than an innovative approach.

Let me share with you examples of companies that have found successful new ways of innovative hiring and provide you with some questions to help you with your hiring process.

Innovative Hiring Practices

The on-line retailer Zappos believes that the right people are rare; only about one out of 100 job applicants passes a hiring process that is weighted 50 percent on job skills and 50 percent on the potential to mesh with Zappos’ culture. This is because Zappos interviews for innovation.

According to Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh, if you want to get a job at Zappos you need to be able to embrace and drive change. The company encourages employees to experiment and run with ideas that they are passionate about, even if the idea falls outside their job area. As well, the personal quality to demonstrate most at Zappos is to “be humble.” According to Aaron Magness,’ director of business development and brand marketing at Zappos, “Humbleness allows for greater collaboration,” so avoid using “I” in favor of “we.”

Another company that hires for innovation is Uber; a transportation network company based in San Francisco, California, that makes mobile apps that connect passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire and ridesharing services. While the Uber team won’t disclose specifics about the exercises, they do put candidates in real-world situations by using exercises and tests that gauge both creativity and analytical thinking. The exercises can be highly quantitative in nature and make candidates think through real-world business problems.

Ryan Graves, Head of Global Operations for Uber says that when it comes to finding the right people, the key is to find your own hiring process instead of following someone else’s. “Instead of asking fluffy, ‘Tell-me-a-time-when’ kinds of questions, we just put people in scenarios that will most closely [resemble the] job that they will do and then create a real-world and real-time conversation that gives us an insight to their ability to handle problems on the fly.”

Graves also searches for people who are problem solvers. “In our business, we have a combination of creative and analytical. It’s very hard to find those people who have a mix of kind of left and right brain but plenty of businesses need different skill sets. I would say discount people’s previous experience but put a heavy premium on their ability to prove to you in the interview process that they have the right skill sets to solve the problems that your business has. I look for people who see problems and solve them. I don’t specifically look for geniuses who think big thoughts and create big breakthroughs. I’m from the innovate-a-bit-at-a-time school, and after you do enough of those, the big idea occurs to at least one person in the organization. I look for people who see broken things and fix them, as well as general problem-solving skills, and what they do when they are stumped–can they work across the organization to get things done?”
Another approach to innovative hiring is recommended by Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO of Futurethink. Bodell suggests you ask prospective candidates their ideas about business-model innovation. The overall idea here is that your business model, even if highly lucrative for many years, requires constant revision so your organization can reach new customers and anticipate (and ward off) potentially disruptive challenges. Bodell believes that you will want to hire employees who’ll help ensure the long-term viability of your business. .

Scott Anthony, the managing partner of the innovation and growth consulting firm Innosight and the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Single Building Factory agrees with Bodell. Anthony points out that one potential question you can ask yourself in the quest to revise your business model is, “Which customers can’t participate in [my] market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions?” Such a question resembles one that guru Peter Drucker may have asked when he suggested, “If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this way we would start?”

So the learning here is to hire employees who’ll help ensure the long-term viability of your business by asking uncomfortable questions. The key is finding the candidates who’ll boldly answer those questions, when on one else can.

What Not to Ask

Questions that do not go far beyond the traditional interview questions and that do not give you any insight into how the candidate thinks include:

Are you a team player? Do you really believe they’ll say no?
Tell us about your attitude. No one will ever say they have a bad attitude or they hate working with others.
What are your leadership strengths? Most likely the person will answer with whatever they believe the interviewer wants to hear; that they are a great innovator and enjoy working collaboratively and that they are able to see both the big picture and the details.
What are your weaknesses? There’s no way they are going to answer this question other than to say that there are none that they can think of right now. Except perhaps a mention that they cannot resist chocolate cake.

Questions You Should Be Asking

Today, we’ve got to think about framing innovation interviews differently. We have to think of ways to ask questions and spark discussions that really help us to get to know the person sitting across from us. Here are some examples of questions for innovation that you could be asking that can help you to identify innovative new hires:

  • Have you ever noticed something wrong in a system or product you had some responsibility for? What was it? What did you do about it?
  • Give me an example of a time you had a great idea that required other people to implement or clear an obstacle to your solution. What did you do?
  • What issues, concerns and challenges do you see emerging in our industry that could pose a threat to our employees and our business? What would you do about them?
  • What situations or environments seem to make you the most creative?
  • What are some specific things (either at work, school or personal) have changed and/or been implemented as a result of your ideas?
  • Have you ever come up with a wild, crazy idea that you think could or did have a huge, positive impact on your organization or work performance? What was the idea? What problem was it trying to solve? What was your approach to solving the problem and how did it work out?
  • What if you were to present a creative idea to the leadership team but they won’t accept it. What would you do?
  • Which new customer segments will emerge in five years? How will those customers discover our products and/or services?
  • What challenges do you see emerging in our industry that could pose a threat to our business? What would you do about them?
  • If you had ten minutes to talk with CEOs across our industry, what would you challenge them to do differently?
  • Tell me about a time you attempted to solve a problem with a completely unorthodox approach. What was the problem, what was your approach, and how did it work out?


Hiring for innovation can be challenging and requires a clear understanding of your culture and processes for innovation. Those who have been successful have moved away from traditional interview methods; they’ve applied qualitative and quantitative approaches that hone in on the prospective candidate’s ability to problem-solve. This includes asking the candidate exploratory questions to uncover the person’s general problem-solving skills and find out what they do when they are stumped as well as determine how well they can work across the organization to get things done.

Michael Stanleigh

Michael Stanleigh, CMC, CSP, CSM is the CEO of Business Improvement Architects. He works with leaders and their teams around the world to improve organizational performance by helping them to define their strategic direction, increase leadership performance, create cultures that drive innovation and improve project and quality management. Michael’s experience spans public and private sector organizations in over 20 different countries. He also delivers presentations to businesses and conferences throughout the world. In addition to his consulting practice and global speaking he has been featured and published in over 500 different magazines and industry publications.

For more information about this article you may contact Michael Stanleigh at mstanleigh@bia.ca