For those heading up innovation in large organizations, there’s no shortage of frameworks, methods and techniques to equip their teams with.

But these processes and tools won’t make the difference. The people that are part of these teams matter more than anything else.

We all (say we) want innovative teams. So, how do you recruit the right people? What do you look for?

Here’s what the experts suggest.


Jorge Barba: “Why is innovation a difficult talent to recruit for?

I’ve seen this work firsthand, and also not work. It’s not easy, but innovation isn’t easy because getting the “human” part right is critical; innovation is a group activity.

Past performance is not indicative of future performance.

The skills and attitudes that lead one to excel are hard to gauge. They’re not easily certified. No Six Sigma Ninja, Marketing 101, Supply Chain Best Practice, Technical Doctorates necessarily signal that you have found the correct skill sets.

Hiring for innovation means hiring for transformation, so search for signs of an innovative mindset. All innovators are alike in habits and cognitive traits. Overall, you could say that innovators are learning animals: boundless curiosity, with a strong bias for action.

Also, true innovators aren’t consumed with previous success, rather they understand that a beginner’s mind is more useful for creating the future.

It’s why a good clue is evidence of curiosity and experimentation. Oh, and a never give up attitude.

Intellectual firepower certainly helps solve thorny problems, but an ability to dazzle at exams doesn’t predict how someone will respond to an innovation challenge, a blank page or a team of expectant peers.”

Stefan Lindegaard: “I’m sure you’ve had the experience of when you’ve hired someone with a great resume only to find they couldn’t operate within your company’s culture or couldn’t adapt to changing demands and circumstances. Instead, you want to hire people who have shown a proven potential for constant learning and growth, people who are capable of adapting quickly to changing circumstances and who deal well with the ambiguity that is present in fast moving markets.

Organizations – as well as the talent – must know what they must adapt toward. It is difficult to know this due to the fast pace of change, so companies must experiment and develop ways to gauge – and maintain – an overview and/or direction for the internal and external factors and trends that impact their innovation efforts and capabilities. For companies with a strong tradition of relying solely on the knowledge of internal R&D experts to drive innovation through new products and technologies, this may require broader tracking of emerging trends as well as reaching beyond R&D to other parts of the company for ideas on other ways to innovate.

This relates to the fact that products and technology are not the only areas ripe for innovation in most organizations.

For example, you can also innovate in your business model, in your channels, and in customer engagement, to name only a few possibilities. All of these additional areas should be tracked in your overview of possible future directions and you need people capable for this.

More and more innovation work will happen in communities; internally as well as externally and in many hybrid forms. Making communities work will be a key skill to look for in future talent.

Strong networking and communication skills – including an ability to communicate a vision that inspires people – are essential. The people leading your open innovation community must be able to create a shared sense of purpose, values and rules of engagement.

Since their role involves assuring that innovation becomes part of the DNA of your organization, innovation leaders need to be capable of analyzing the big picture both in and outside the company.

This includes the ability to decipher the internal political landscape that will impact their ability to move innovation forward as well as having a thorough understanding of the outside forces that shape your company’s marketplace opportunities.

This trait is also helpful for intrapreneurs (the people building new businesses within the business) to have since it will make them better at new business development too.

Innovation requires bringing together people from disparate parts of a business–or even outside the business–to create a united force to drive new ideas forward. Having an innate ability to network is a key asset in making this happen.

In research done by Rob Cross, of the University of Virginia, and Robert J. Thomas and David A. Light, of Accenture Institute for High Performance Business, they learned that high performers are likely to position themselves at key points in a network and leverage the network around them better when implementing their plans. Also, they found that high performers tend to invest in relationships that extend their expertise and help them avoid learning biases and career traps. Finally, they discovered that high performers value networks and engage in behaviors that lead to high-quality relationships–not just big networks.

People who are passionate about a subject are also curious about it. They are in a constant learning mode, always wanting to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to knowing about trends and new developments. True innovators also understand that lessons from one arena can often be used to drive innovation in another, so they usually do not confine their learning to just their own narrow field.

One of the things it’s important for them to be curious about is the jobs of others. By having an interest in what other people do and how that impacts the organization, innovation leaders in particular are better prepared to help drive change.

These are all skills and behaviors you want in innovation leaders and intrapreneurs.”

Soren Kaplan: “Breakthrough innovation is about making a significant difference for your customers while creating competitive differentiation for your business.

In many respects, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff” when it comes to changing the game.

It’s one thing to hire for hard skills. It’s another to tune into the less tangible qualities that will help you leapfrog to the next level.

Breakthrough innovation involves a unique way of thinking. A mindset focused on “leapfrogging” views the world with the goal of changing the game – creating or doing something radically new or different that produces a significant leap forward. Do those you’re hiring want to change the world with you, or simply collect a paycheck? Make sure you hire for that game-changing attitude.

Most innovative companies create networks of partners to create and deliver their products and services. What relationships do your prospective team members bring with them? What strategic partners could they contact on day one?

Big innovations can take time. During the process, decisions must be made using limited data, assumptions revisited regularly, and set-backs taken in stride. Do your prospective teammates have experience leading through uncertainty, or do they need an annual plan that never changes in order to function?

Research shows that taking assertive actions (even if they don’t always lead to positive results) contributes to both optimisim and the risk-taking mindset needed to persist through the tough times. Are those you’re hiring able to define and take another step forward, even immediately following a personal set-back?”

Pete Maulik: “We recognized that when seeking an innovator, you don’t just want to know if a candidate has the skills you need — you want to see how those skills are applied to real-world commercial objectives. Having ideas is only part of what makes an effective innovator.

Being able to execute on an idea — transforming blue-sky notions into tangible offerings — is the other half of the innovation equation.

No matter how big the idea is: if it isn’t doable, it’s not an innovation.

Detecting these skills in isolation is a good sign, but it says little about a candidate’s innovation capability.

How these skills are leveraged is the key to execution, and the challenge is to design an interview process that tests the application of these core skills.”