Develop an Innovator and Game Changer Capture Program

Corporate recruiters and HR professionals have a long history of treating all applicants and jobs equitably, a term that synonymous most organizations use to mean “the same.” Unfortunately, if you treat all applicants the same, you’re liable to miss some individuals who, if identified and hired (and in many organizations allowed to do what they were hired to do), would have an unequal impact on business results. These individuals are labeled as innovators, game changers, thought leaders, and diverse thinkers.

Although pursuing operational excellence and efficiency in recruiting was once an acceptable goal, it is no longer. We are now living in a world where innovation drives growth and performance, not process conformity, strict policy, or established standards. In this new era, recruiters and recruiting leaders need to toss aside everything they think they know about recruiting, and reinvent a recruiting process capable of identifying innovators and treating them differently. (The same could truly be said about recruiting any type of diverse candidate.)

The Business Impact of Innovators and Game Changers

There are many reasons why managers in corporate recruiting fail to institute specialized processes and programs to capture individuals (executive search professionals have long excelled at treating game changers differently). The most common reason for their lack of action is that they have failed to calculate the differential in business impact that hiring and retaining innovators can have on a business.

Leading firms like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and General Electric have led the way in understanding the value of these individuals. Google, for example, has found that a top engineer can deliver as much as 300 times more value than an average engineer. In fact, Google has created the world’s first recruiting process designed to capture and hire innovators in every position in the company. As Google puts it, “Thinking beyond the norm is expected, no matter what position you happen to hold…Innovation is our bloodline. Even the best technology can be improved.”

Apple demonstrated its knowledge in building competitive advantage through hiring when it brought Tony Fadell on board to help create the iPod, an act that has led to billions of dollars in revenue. There isn’t a huge amount of publicly available research on the exact dollar impact of these innovators, but almost all of what does exist shows that they produce at minimum five times the business impact of a standard hire. In my experience, the results are so dramatic that they are hard to question. Whether you hire innovators or develop them, it’s time to realize that HR must develop a program designed specifically to capture these innovators, game changers, and diverse thinkers.

6 Reasons Why Recruiting Processes Often Miss Innovators

There are a variety of reasons why most traditional recruiting systems either fail to identify or delay the hiring of innovators. Some of the prime reasons for this include:

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  1. An Over-Reliance on Education. As a university professor, I’m a big fan of college education, but I accept that the world is full of successful people who either never attended college or who dropped out. In fact, some of the most successful people in this age were dropouts, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Michael Dell (Dell), and Serge and Larry, the two Google founders who dropped out of the Ph.D. program at Stanford.

    The key point here is that most college education is extremely structured, and as a result, it routinely frustrates people who think outside the box, a condition that often results in them quitting prematurely. (This condition, if present in your organization, can also cause them to leave your organization quickly!)

    Solution: The key to fixing this problem is to modify your job specifications and your ATS or recruiter-driven screening system so that a lack of a degree is weighted neutrally.

  2. An Over-Reliance on Work Experience. Experience just isn’t what it used to be. In the old days, when things in business changed very slowly and innovation took years, the number of years of work experience meant a lot. But how could someone spend years working on a Facebook,, eBay, or an iPhone, when these concepts never before existed?

    Almost by definition, innovators have ideas and concepts in areas where having a great deal of experience is not even possible. The fact is that the speed of change and innovation in the world has increased dramatically to the point at which knowledge, answers, and even experience can be obsolete in as little as two years.

    Solution: Once again, screening systems need to be modified so that they don’t automatically exclude people with fewer than “X” years of experience. Experience should be one factor that is considered, but as Google has found, you need to look at successes and experience outside of the work environment in order to identify game changers and innovators (did they write a book, win a regional contest, start a business, etc.).

  3. Resumes Don’t Contain Ideas. If you’re looking for innovators, you can’t always correctly identify them based solely on their resumes. Traditional resumes focus on a candidate’s experience and education; but, Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook, would likely be missed by most resume screeners because there’s just no place on a traditional resume to include innovative ideas that come from outside of formal work experience and education.

    Solution: Google’s approach is to look beyond work experience. It considers a whole range of successes by using a questionnaire that asks about other experiences and successes, in addition to the resume, to identify innovators and diverse thinkers. If you’re bold, consider asking applicants on your website to specifically list their successful innovations and ideas that have changed the game. You should also change your keyword search process to focus on key terms that indicate the possibility of innovation. Some of the words you should search for include “innovative,” “new,” “novel,” “breakthrough,” “groundbreaking,” “discovered,” “created,” “outside the box,” and “quantum leap.”

  4. The Right Degree Isn’t Always the Only Degree. Higher education today allows enough flexibility for individuals in any major to learn a variety of skills. It’s no longer true that you need an engineering degree in order to design webpages or a business degree to understand marketing. Almost all degree programs include some technology aspect, so if you assume that, for example, skills in technology can only be found in those candidates with an engineering degree, you will be missing out on some great hires. EDS, Hallmark, and Google have found great success recruiting top students with degrees in creative design, music, math, and other nontraditional, nontechnical areas.

    Solution: Start by identifying which academic programs are likely to have innovators and outside-the-box thinkers. Yes, you should look at the narrow, traditional degree programs, but your search shouldn’t overly focus on those degrees. You should periodically take a chance on interns from these other more creative disciplines in order to better assess whether you’re missing out on some top people. Company-sponsored contests and projects are also good ways to identify individual innovators from a variety of majors. In addition, rather than focusing on just top schools for your recruiting, you should also look at liberal arts institutions that specialize in producing broad thinkers who are probably not overly tied to the current technology and the current way of doing business.

  5. Using Cultural Fit as Selection Criteria. Unfortunately, most screening processes are designed to purposely screen out individuals who are different than the average employee at the firm. The premise being that people who are not a fit will be disruptive, hard-to-manage, or just stand out. If you are looking for someone who is going to change the game, they by definition, would have to be different.

    I would speculate that Tony Fadell, during his first interview at Apple, must have said something to the effect of, “You guys are missing it. Apple shouldn’t just be in the computer business, it should also be in the music business.” Unfortunately, at most firms, criticizing what they currently do almost guarantees you’ll be screened out. IBM learned a long time ago with its wild turkey and with its current extreme blue program that bringing in individuals who don’t fit can actually help spur change. Jack Welch did something similar at GE when he required senior executives to have a (usually younger) technology geek as a mentor in order to push the executives into using and understanding more technology.

    Solution: The first step is to realize that if you want to lead the way in disruptive technology and process improvement, you need to revise your screening and interviewing process to allow disruptors through. The goal is to change the screening so that, at least for certain jobs, outside-the-box thinkers (who by definition are not like your current employees), have a sufficient opportunity to demonstrate their ideas and new ways of thinking. Recruiting probably also needs to designate an innovation champion whose job it is to identify the resumes of candidates who have the potential to be innovative and to ensure that they get an opportunity to demonstrate their innovativeness during the interview process. The key is to celebrate uniqueness, not to reject it.

  6. Interviews All Too Often Reject Innovators. The net result of most interview processes is that they end up hiring the best safe-but-low-risk candidate. Unfortunately, most innovators are high-risk hires, so you need to recognize that the interview process is probably part of the problem.

    Solution: You need to educate hiring managers and those who sit in on interviews on what they can do to improve the assessment and to lower the reject rate of innovators. The best solution is generally to give potential innovators a perplexing real problem that the team is facing, and ask the candidate to walk them through the steps that they would take to resolve it. If the answer differs significantly from your current approach, you have found an outside-the-box and diverse thinker. Educating interviewers about the need to occasionally take a chance on higher high-risk candidates is also a good idea.

Other Action Steps to Increase the Hiring of Game Changers and Innovators

Some other things that you can do to make your recruiting and interviewing process more friendly and welcoming to innovators include:

  • Ask your innovators to refer. The very best process for recruiting innovators and quality hires is your employee referral program. However, rather than expecting your average employee to refer innovators, instead proactively approach your own current innovators. Ask them directly who they know, and if they will help you convince them to come on board.
  • Hold contests. The second best way to identify innovators is to hold a problem-solving contest. MGM Grand’s “black box” contests for selecting internal innovators and TopCoder’s software contest for identifying external candidates are the benchmark players here.
  • Look for crazy resumes. Innovative individuals may, in lieu of providing a traditional resume, offer anything from poems and DVDs, to hard copy or even Web portfolios to demonstrate their abilities. Even though reviewing this work takes more time, it might also result in you finding amazing innovators.
  • Look for “contra thinkers.” Everybody says they want new ideas, so if you want to find innovators, just ask everyone, “Who is the contra thinker?” Of course, it is risky to hire these contras but as Scott McNealy of Sun has said, “If you really want to make a lot of money…you have to buy some swamp land!”
  • Improve the interview. The interview process must be tolerant and inclusive (i.e., expect some craziness). The interview must allow applicants to show their innovation/outside-the-box thinking. Include innovative employees as interviewers to excite candidates and to more accurately assess the candidates.
  • Be ready for a shock. When presented with a problem during interviews, innovators and game changers are likely to boldly infer that your current approach is dated, or they may even say out loud that it’s silly. Educate interviewers who, rather than being defensive, instead need to tag this individual as a potential innovator.
  • Improve the candidate experience. Most hiring processes are slow and just plain ugly. Unfortunately, many candidates judge the innovativeness of your screening process as an indication of your company’s actual state of innovation (and might drop out). As a result, it’s important to periodically survey candidates in order to identify trouble spots.
  • Look for individuals who see “empty glasses.” Rather than looking for individuals who see the glass as half full, instead seek out individuals who see the glass as empty. People who see the glass as being totally empty means that they see major problems or opportunities everywhere. To find innovators, look for individuals who offer solutions that vary by at least 50% from everyone else’s. And most importantly, look for individuals who don’t benchmark but instead seek those who consciously reject the present state and instead aim ahead of where the best are now.
  • Look for innovators at events. Innovators like to hang out with other innovators, in part because at their own firms, they might actually be treated as outsiders. Ask your own innovative employees to name the specific events that they attend where they see a lot of innovators. Send your best recruiters to these events. Technology-related get-togethers might include blogger events, robot competitions, and open-source gatherings. If you’re looking for calculated risk-takers, consider the meetings of rock climbing clubs, mountain climbing teams, and poker groups. Other events where you might find innovators and future-oriented individuals include inventor clubs, improv events, jazz clubs, entrepreneur clubs, Star Trek conventions, and future and space groups.
  • Look for innovators on the Web. Internet forums and chat rooms are an excellent place to identify innovators. Look for individuals with outside-the-box answers to the posted problems. Or, post your own problems in order to bring them out. Also, look at bloggers, since they frequently write blogs because they are frustrated with the approaches that most in their profession take. Individuals who like new approaches also tend to love new media, so also expect to find innovators in Second Life displaying their work on YouTube, on podcasts, and on MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn social networking sites.
  • Brand your company as an innovator. You must make a conscious effort to manage your external image as a place where innovators are welcomed. Sometimes it takes bold concepts, like Yahoo’s Brickhouse for innovators or Google’s pajama day and martini blowout to send a clear message that acting differently is the norm rather than the exception. Your branding team needs to ensure that compelling stories and examples of how you positively recruit and manage innovators appear in the media that innovators frequent.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on development. Although quiet innovation rooms with soft pillows might change your currently staid employees into crazy innovators, it’s liable to be a slow and expensive process. Instead, realize that hiring individuals who are already innovative will be more likely to have an immediate impact on the business.
  • Periodically test your resume screening system. Periodically submit outside-the-box resumes just to see if they are prematurely screened out of your system.

Final Thoughts

It’s no secret that CEOs are demanding more innovation from every source. Unfortunately, recruiting hasn’t been doing its part in identifying and bringing on board a sufficient quantity of innovators and game changers. In fact, recruiting might have actually been scaring them away.

Success starts with realizing that innovators are different, and as a result, they must be assessed, interviewed, and treated differently than other candidates if you expect to land them. What is needed, rather than a hodgepodge effort, is a program designed specifically to target innovators. If at least 5% of your new hires have not been identified as innovators, game changers, or diverse thinkers, you can blame yourself for hurting the company’s bottom line. It’s really that simple.

Note: This article is a follow-up to my previous article on how to hire innovators that was published by ERE on October 16, 2006. You can read this article here.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “Develop an Innovator and Game Changer Capture Program

  1. John
    As always, thoughtful and clear advice.
    I think there should also be items in your Solution that direct recruiting teams to do analysis on the relationship between screening questions and job performance.

    Google, and others using some form of objective candidate evaluation have conducted analysis to document the relationships between candidate response patterns and job performance. It can be quite revealing. Case in point, we recently documented two cases where an experience based question used for screening had a negative relationship to performance. It was counter intuitive, yet the organizations had been using the questions. More experience in what seems to be a job relevant background can actually be a detriment.

    Solution: Don’t assume ? collect data, analyze, revise as appropriate.

  2. Employers should realize that innovation-prone individuals are no less rare than those with any other desirable qualities ? e.g. artistic, leadership, financial, enterprising, people service, etc. Roughly two-thirds of the population will score 4, 5, 6 or 7 on a STEN scale for any given quality. Roughly one in seven scores 8, 9 or 10. Targeting ?at least 5%? new-hire innovators appears retrograde when not targeting will deliver around 15%, naturally.

    Stereotyping makes innovators somewhat harder to see. Game changers are not predominantly contest participants, crazy resume writers, contrarians, shock jocks, or blow it up proponents. The best of them are thoughtful contributors, who apply their special talent to help build enterprise value and enterprise health.

    Innovators (game changers) think and act differently because it is naturally comfortable for them to do so. That?s their make up. They routinely consider alternative assumptions, initiatives and outcomes that may lead to new and useful perspectives. Most game changers thrive on a broad range of inputs from lots of sources and use various combinations of abstract, conceptual and analytical thinking to create novel possibilities for further consideration.

    Game changers are far more inclined to create new and better systems, products, etc. than they are to incrementally improve the existing ones. They are generally self-confident; most have a track record of ?developing solutions? that reaches back into their childhood. They experiment. The best fail early and often. As Thomas Edison said, ?To have a great idea, have a lot of them.?

    Because prescreening for game changers will eliminate about 85% of the applicant pool (including a proportionate number of likely top performers), here is an alternative approach to effectively harnessing the power of innovators:

    ? Pick the best person for every job opening ? i.e. job match to a well developed job analysis for each position, every time. Use total person assessments that include cognitive, behavior and interest measures. Know the corresponding qualities of top performers in the position of interest.

    ? Among all employees (not just new hires), find the roughly one in seven who are particularly innovation-prone. Proper assessment will not only identify them, but will also provide actionable information to improve communication, collaboration and development among all employees.

    ? Senior management should make sure that the company deploys and supports its likely game changers in ways that stand to maximize their value to the enterprise. Let innovation-prone employees lead teams. See that they get plenty of job-related stimuli. Evaluate reporting relationships to avoid mismatches ? i.e. innovation-prone employees perform at their best when they report to innovation-prone superiors. The right training (e.g. Lateral Thinking techniques) can elevate anybody?s creativity; innovation-prone employees tend to pick up on these techniques much more quickly than others.

    ? How the organization manages talent and knowledge matters a whole lot more than a ?pajama day? or a ?martini blowout?, when it comes to developing a pro-innovator brand. Encouraging experimentation and celebrating early failures (learning experiences) matters, too. Authenticity counts. Signature experiences (often told stories and displayed pictures that highlight successful innovation and those who drive it) serve to continuously underscore a company?s depth of commitment. High levels of employee engagement reinforce every aspect of attracting and retaining top talent, including game changers.

    Most employers have more innovators and game changers than they realize. Find out who they are and then start making the right moves to better employ their talents.

    Please email if you want to know more about available tools and techniques for measuring and managing talent, including those tools specifically tailored for the innovation agenda.

  3. Richard,

    This is one of the most intelligent things I have read on this site in a while. Thank you for your input.

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