As the idea of innovation grows within corporate culture, both as a true practice and just as often as a term to be sprinkled about like so much PowerPoint seasoning, many companies are getting serious about making a cultural shift toward product creativity as a goal. While the majority of these firms will work to bring an innovation process to their core product teams (as they should), others will also consider the creation of a dedicated innovation group or lab. When done right the Lab model can allow companies to fund long-term, outlier thinking without distracting those responsible for existing revenues.
Innovation techniques can and should be taught throughout product organizations. Firms such as the LUMA Institute (through their Human Centered Design methodology) teach practical and effective techniques for ideation amongst groups. While innovation training can always make a difference, the case should be made that those with certain personality traits excel in innovation roles, while those who lack those qualities generally tend to fail. The staffing of an innovation organization, which by nature needs to be lean, agile, fast and above all creative, may be the single most important factor in its success.
So what makes up the right type of candidate for an innovation role?
Following are characteristics that throughout my career I have found common in many of the best innovation and product people. I absolutely believe in first screening for the right type of person and then looking at experience, references and education pedigree.
Has ideas: Yes, it would seem a given that the candidate should have ideas. In fact the right candidate will generally have tons of solid ideas about all sorts of things pertaining to products within and outside of their current company and industry, and will love talking about them. A conversation about ideas is a great way to find hidden talent as well as identify those who would see ideation as a chore.
Has good ideas: Sure this is subjective, but there are a few standards that can be applied. Ideas should be creative, backed by some defensible logic and should show the bigger opportunity.
Shows a natural tendency toward solutions: Look for the candidate that seems to lean toward solutions for even the most impossible situation. Finding the problems is easy.
Shows an interest in working with other smart, accomplished people: A good candidate will ask about the others on the team and will show enthusiasm for working with strong professionals. A competitive nature is a great thing but defensiveness or lack of professional confidence will turn ugly when working with strong players.
Demonstrates a willingness to stand behind ideas regardless of internal popularity: Any truly disruptive idea will have immediate detractors. The right candidate will need to know when and how to continue promoting and pushing an idea that is under heavy fire. Look for people who are confident in their ideas and do not back off of them immediately if challenged. Satisfying the “has good ideas” characteristic first makes this all the better. Nothing is more painful than watching someone die defending a clearly awful idea.
Has creative hobbies outside of work: As much as process has its place, product innovation is at its core a creative pursuit. Look for people who are passionate about something creative beyond their day job.
Is comfortable with organizational ambiguity: Working within an innovation organization means working at all levels of the company with varying and shifting degrees of responsibility. Watch for people who are both able to lead and willing to play a non-leadership role within a group.
Is professionally aggressive and self-managing: In an environment often without project milestones or revenue targets, it takes significant discipline and drive to move ideas forward. No different than a start-up environment, an innovation environment needs to be full of self-starters.
Has an extremely positive attitude toward ideas: The right person will know when to say an idea is not right (or nicely say it is awful), but will naturally exhaust themselves looking for a way to make it work first. More important than any single characteristic, having a person with a bad attitude toward ideas can cripple the entire process.
What do you think? Did I miss any traits? Do you disagree with any of the ones I called out? Let me know by leaving a comment below.