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Companies Don’t Innovate; People Do

Companies Don’t Innovate; People Do

Being innovative means doing things differently or doing things that have never been done before. And doing so needs a different mindset and skillset. But the fact remains, companies don’t innovate; people in those companies do.

The sourcing and development of innovative ideas are essential to a businesses’ long-term success. Therefore, hiring managers need to keep innovation in mind when reviewing candidates. Candidates possessing innovative qualities and experience contribute to a successful company. They directly impact the work culture and many business practices. 

However, hiring for innovation is different from all other hiring criteria, processes, and decisions. This article will talk about at least two dozen characteristics of employees who are best suited for innovation.

1. They are not yes-masters

Employees who are not ready to say ‘no’ when needed do not fit the innovation team quite well. Innovation requires an ability and willingness to challenge the status quo. People who are ‘yes masters’ lack this ability.

2. They are not nay-sayers

Employees who are constant nay-sayers impede innovation at best. Their negative outlook and attitude can stifle innovative ideas and innovation overall. These candidates may be suited in more cautionary positions where a negative outlook may work as an asset. Unfortunately, innovation is not one of them.

3. They are not sprinters but marathon runners

Innovation is not a short-term game. You are not developing an off-the-shelf product or an already known process. Working on something that hasn’t been tried before needs several iterations, trials, errors, failures, and whatnot. People who prefer shorter projects and sprints are not well suited for innovation because they might get bored sooner and lose interest.

4. They are self-starters and independent thinkers

Innovation often requires independent thinking and taking the initiative. Someone who prefers waiting on managers or leaders for taking action may slow down the innovation faster. Moreover, if they cannot think independently, it is unlikely that they will work on original and creative ideas.

5. They are first-principle thinkers

If you were to check whether someone is the first principle thinker or not, try this. Ask them a question and demand reasoning for their answer. See how they reason their thinking. The first principle thinkers almost always will start from the ground up or fundamental principles.

On the contrary, others will do so with associative reasoning. Associative reasoning and heuristics are good approaches for faster decision-making. However, when it comes to innovation, they often result in a lack of originality.

6. They are creative thinkers or better implementers

While creative thinking gets the limelight in innovation, rigorous implementation is what makes it successful. So you may find it difficult to find a candidate who has both capabilities. It is not impossible for some candidates, but it is surely rare. Having a balanced team is essential, and that means you need both types of candidates. Decide what you want in your innovation team and hire accordingly. Expecting both characteristics from the same candidate might not be an effective strategy.

7. They have excellent communication skills

It is often said that better innovators are not better communicators, which in my opinion is just a red-herring. For any innovation to succeed, it must be communicated well at all stages and to everyone. So, checking for excellent communication skills is going to be highly important. See how the candidate responds when you challenge their ideas and how they convince or try to convince you. 

8. They have cross-sector experience 

This point is perhaps one of the most counterintuitive ones on the list. Most people would think that having industry experience is a plus as that can help in innovating further. However, in my experience, it often backfires. 

Institutional blindness is a real thing. It means that once someone has stayed in a particular industry for a long time, they often develop an ability to ignore the most obvious things, which is often detrimental to the innovation. Institutional blindness may be useful when it comes to speed, efficiency, and productivity. However, specific to innovation, it works against that.

9. They are good at adapting 

Adaptability is an important trait in general, and it is even more important in the innovation game. The ability to respond to continuously changing situations and unexpected outcomes is the key to running successful innovation projects. Why not change your hiring methodology and see how people adapt to your process. That itself will filter a few candidates. 

For example, instead of following a traditional hiring process of tests and interviews, do something different. Maybe you run a contest or ask them to do something. Put the candidates in a novel scenario and ask them to make decisions. When you change the hiring methodology, only those who are good at adapting will excel and thrive. Rest will fall off eventually and make it easier for you to select.

10. They are more curiosity and less judgmental

Curiosity is often the beginning of the innovation journey. If someone is judgmental and has already made up their mind, they are unlikely to investigate the matter further. And if that is the case, you are not going to see anything innovative. 

On the contrary, curiosity often leads to the quest to know more and find out “why.” This quest then can result in deeper dive into the root causes of the matter at hand, or it may pose a “why not” question. Both ways, it leads to innovation. Hire more curious people for innovation and avoid judgemental ones.

11. Their resume most likely has a lot but can be confusing

Over the last two decades, I have noticed that most (or almost all) innovators have quite a non-linear career path. That often means that the traditional resume format doesn’t do any justice when documenting that path. Suppose you come across a slightly off resume, which does not look like a traditional one; probe further. 

You may be dealing with a cross-functionally experienced person. Although their career path looks non-linear and doesn’t make sense at first glance, talking to them can often give you a better perspective. In most cases, they can draw a connecting line between all those experiences. And that can help you make the decision.

12. They are good at problem-solving but better at problem finding

Yes, problem-solving is a commonly revered skill for all cadre of employees. And when you deal with well-defined problems, that’s all you need from someone. However, finding better problems to solve is becoming a forgotten skill. When you have someone who can find better problems to solve, it can open up a new potential opportunity for your business. It may help you tap into a completely new market, which can be a serious advantage for your business. 

Testing a candidate for problem-finding ability is relatively easier. Of course, you want a meaningful problem finder who is willing to solve the problem too, not a complainer who finds faults but does nothing to fix them.

13. Avoid specialists; prefer more synthesists

If you ask someone, “What is the opposite of a specialist?” You will most likely hear, “A generalist.” And that is incorrect. The real opposite of a specialist is Synthesist. Specialists are good at breaking down things and working on them at a deeper level. On the other hand, synthesists are good at combining things and looking at the big picture.

The success of meaningful innovation is in defining its higher-level context in which your innovative product or solution will eventually operate. Only synthesists can see the big picture and explain how a particular innovation fits a bigger system or situation. It also means that synthesists can often connect the dots and derive innovation from different fields. More often than not, innovation is less about original ideas and more about original combinations.

14. They know what they don’t know

“Know it all” people don’t make a good fit for innovation teams. This point is a corollary to being more curious and less judgmental. When people are self-aware, they know their limits, and they also know what to seek. Knowing what you don’t know pushes you to learn that skill or find that information. It develops an attitude of continuous learning. 

15. They challenge the status quo with logic

As I mentioned before, innovation requires the ability and willingness to challenge the status quo. However, there is a major difference between being a rebel for its sake and being pragmatic with logic. It can be slightly tricky to test it out when you are in the hiring process, mainly because everyone wants to show their best-case persona in the hiring process. These nuances are easy to miss.

16. They are modest about achievements

This one is a bit odd. In any hiring process, both parties want to highlight their achievements and boost their advantage as much as possible. However, this is when you are most likely to miss better candidates for your innovation journey because these candidates are modest about their achievements. 

I have seen in many cases people jump the gun and celebrate their innovation win too early. In other cases, the proportion of their celebration doesn’t even match the outcome. It can be detrimental to your innovation program in the long run.

Candidates’ modest nature often puts them behind the queue and it must be avoided. So, next time you find a candidate being modest about their achievements, chances are they are a good fit for the innovation role.

17. They are experimenters and action takers

As a result, to point 4 and 6 above, innovative people are avid experimenters and have a strong bias towards taking action. You will find them constantly experimenting and testing out various assumptions. And when they see a positive outcome or find a way through that experimentation, they take action. 

It often needs tenacity, perseverance, and patience. Many see patience as a roadblock in a world where everything is moving fast or appears to be moving fast. But not the innovators.

So, in your hiring process, see how you can check these qualities. Particularly, see how you can make them show experimenter in them. It will be interesting as well as supportive of the process of selection.

18. Look for diversity of thinking, experience, and skills

When we talk about diversity, we usually think of gender balance or demographics. However, for innovation, we also need diversity of thinking, experience, and skills.

Diversity of thinking comes from the fact that you have learned to think differently. You don’t just follow what others are saying. Your opinions are based on what you see around you, and you can think independently on your feet. And therefore, in most cases, this thinking is different from others. The other part is about perspective. Because of the diversity of experience, you’re able to see the same issue from different angles.

Talking about the experience, if you have a candidate who has experience in the same industry for a very long time, the chances are that they haven’t seen enough. Different perspectives from other industries, whether they are better or maybe worse, are important. Regardless, these candidates won’t be aware of it. A candidate from different industry experiences or different types of roles has gathered so much variety that it helps them think innovatively. So look for a variety of experiences.

And of course, for the skills, you need someone who is not just a specialist in one thing, but many. It is important because innovation is often about finding new ways to do something, new combinations, and original combinations. That is only possible when someone has a diverse set of skills, so go for it.

19. Entrepreneurs should be welcomed

Now, this one is interesting. I want to emphasize this point because I have often seen companies being skeptical of hiring entrepreneurs. They think that entrepreneurs may leave early or will be more distracted thinking about their next venture. Well, this is a very negative outlook on entrepreneurs. First of all, entrepreneurs are and can be more loyal to you than an employee can. They understand it because they have had their employees, and they exactly know what you expect of them. 

But more importantly, entrepreneurship teaches you so many different skills and techniques. They have gathered so much expertise through their entrepreneurial venture. So once you have an entrepreneur in your innovation journey, you have multiple employees packed together in that one person. So if you get a chance to hire an entrepreneur for your innovation programs, jump on it, don’t lose that opportunity. Without question, it is a very good bargain.

20. They are future-literate

Futures literacy has become a need of an hour. You cannot just innovate or develop anything in silos anymore. You not only need to understand what’s going on around you at any given point time. You need to be aware of trends and fads in your industry, neighboring industries, and the economy. But you also have to be aware of what is coming and what might be In time to come. 

That means people need to be aware of future scenarios. So, futures literacy is becoming more and more important. The complexity and volatility of the markets and economies force people to stay two steps ahead and at any time. Being future-literate will help you do that, which is why you must look for this trait.

21. They love problems instead of solutions

People love what they create as a solution, product, service, or software program. And this is a trap. If you love your solutions, you are less likely to change when the problem changes and when the context changes. So my strong advice to anyone is this: Not just for innovation, but a successful and sustainable business; always love the problem you are working on. Love the fact that you have an opportunity to work on that problem. Your solutions may change over time as technology evolves and context changes. But if you are stuck with just the solution and are in love with your solution, it may soon become redundant. 

Check out these attributes when hiring for innovation. Give them scenarios when they have to pivot and adapt to the problem. You need people who are okay with adapting to the problem and changing solutions. They are better suited than someone who refuses to change the solution despite seeing that everything else has changed.

22. They are aware of the ethical challenges of technology

Ethical challenges are the new minefield in technology. Everything in technology development may look cool, but it is very likely to have some ethical angle. That means they might face significant challenges down the line. So is the candidate aware of those challenges? Do they understand the importance of ethics in dealing with powerful technologies? Do they have a plan or at least an idea to deal with it if that arises? How would they handle it? Ethical maturity is a new soft skill now, and almost everyone needs to have it.

23. They have a track record

A good candidate for innovation usually doesn’t have only one celebrated win. They have a track record. They have a track record of several failures, along with a few successes. Not every win needs to be a bumper success. Some can be small, while others might be much celebrated ones. 

But in general, a good track record does have lots of failures and lots of learnings from those failures. So check for those. Ask them if they have multiple failures? What did they learn from them? Do they have multiple smaller wins? There may be a few bumper wins, but they’re not necessary to have. What you’re looking for is not a one-time stroke of luck. You’re looking for a track record.

24. They are resourceful

This one goes without saying. Resourcefulness is the ability to get what you want with what you have. Being resourceful is quite an important skill in innovation, business in particular. However, it is a highly revered one for every employee in general. But specifically, in innovation, you are often stranded by resources, budget, or even by lack of information. 

Being a resourceful person comes in handy when resources are scarce, and the goal is important and timely. This one is easier to check with a few exercises, scenarios, and carefully designed tests. But being a critical one, you must prioritize it when you can.

What about you?

The hiring process is not a one-way street. As much as you evaluate candidates and their fitment for your organization, they are doing the same with you. 

So what are a few things you must do to show you are a good fit for innovative candidates?


Make sure you can demonstrate company capabilities and willingness to innovate. Most of the time, companies show that they care about employees’ opinions and are innovative. However, once the candidate becomes an employee, things change. They realize that it is not as rosy as the picture they were shown in the hiring process. So, you need to find ways to demonstrate your ability, willingness, culture, and approach towards innovation.


This one is straightforward and applies across the board. Top talent is seldom cheap. You often get what you pay for. So, be ready to pay for the talent. Some companies tend to think from an ROI perspective and calculate it that way. 

I think it is a bit limiting and short-term view. It is not wrong as such, but there is more to it. When you hire candidates who are suitable for innovation, they often impact your company culture and several business practices. So, the impact they can have is beyond just an ROI.


You may hear or see it sometimes. Many strong candidates for innovation are comparatively different, and people call them eccentric, which is an essential trait to have. Eccentricity is what makes them good at what they do. So, being respectful of their eccentricities is a must. 


Even if it is too early in the process and the candidate is not your employee yet, being receptive to their inputs and ideas can go a long way. People who are good at the innovation game appreciate someone listening to their point of view. Demonstrating that you care will instill confidence and will attract them. 

Don’t be offended

A lot can be told about company culture based on how people respond when they are challenged. When someone challenges your legacy, and so-called holy-cow system or process, don’t be offended by it. Stay curious and dig deeper. They may have a point. At least it is worth listening to their point of view. If you feel offended, it sure sends a wrong signal and shows that you are not as flexible as you need to be for an innovative organization. It is often a tell-a-tale sign for candidates not to go ahead.

The point is

You may have observed quite a bit of overlap amongst all these characteristics. But the thing is, when you’re hiring people, some characteristics are useful for particular roles and not for others. Knowing what to look for besides just the hard and soft skills is very important. These are the characteristics; these are the things that tick people working in innovation. So, when you are hiring for innovation, these are the ones you must be looking for. 

End of the day, we all must always remember that companies don’t innovate; people do.

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