Idea Recruiting

Over the last decade, we’ve seen a wave of innovation that the world has never seen. And this decade will move even faster. In an innovation economy, recruiting can play a central role in how new ideas are developed and taken to market.

According to Ray Kurzweil, recipient of the National Medal of Technology and a member of the national inventors’ hall of fame, “we’re about to experience a merger between humans and computers that is so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”

His chart of the major paradigm shifts over the course of human history illustrates a change trend that he calls “The Law of Accelerating Returns.”

It shows that with each passing year, big changes in human history are happening faster and faster.

One might argue that this merger on some levels has already taken place. The Internet has already dramatically changed the way we access, process, record, and communicate information.

Technologies like the iPod and the BlackBerry are making our access to this information more portable than ever. New venues like social networking, blogs, and multimedia online role-playing games like Second Life are even changing the way we interact with each other. One day, your entire life may be digitized.

The adoption of new technologies and communication tools has had an additional side effect: business is moving at an accelerated rate. The barriers to starting a company, launching a website, creating a product, or publishing a book have come down significantly.

Consumers are smarter than ever, knowing in almost real-time the range of options that are available to them. New products continue to come out at an incredibly fast rate. For example, Apple’s first generation of the iPod was conceived, developed, and launched in under six months. Competitive advantages don’t tend to last very long. As soon as you hit the market with a product that gains adoption, there are very often a wave of imitators in your wake.

As I referenced in my article The Talent Story of the iPod, success in this environment all starts with human capital.

Recruiting’s Current and Future Role in the Innovation Economy

Gaining an advantage in this hyper-competitive environment comes down to two things: ideas and execution. For companies like Microsoft (at $7 billion per year, it spends more on R&D than most countries) and Google (it spends $500 million per year on R&D), developing new ideas are built into their DNA. For companies like Dell and more recently HP, the idea is the execution (i.e., they use innovative manufacturing and operational techniques to gain an edge).

Even in manufacturing-centric companies like Boeing, innovations are now the primary driver of business success. If not for the new thinking that drove the creation of the 787, Airbus might still be beating Boeing in its commercial airplanes business.

In recruiting, we’re focused pretty squarely on the execution side of the business (i.e., hiring individuals with 10 years of experience in X role, with Y skill-set to handle Z responsibilities). We test individuals based on cultural fit, somewhat correctly assuming that to execute certain projects in our companies, individuals will need to have a specific type of personality, level of drive, and an ability to interact well with others.

Yet great ideas don’t always require pedigrees, long resumes, or executive compensation packages, and they can come from anywhere, even the mailroom. Creative people don’t always get along with or fit in with others. Michelangelo had a notoriously difficult personality, complete with violent mood swings and a quick temper, but his work was so great that people still hired him. Visit an advertising agency, a game or movie studio, or other highly creative company, and you might feel like you’re on another planet, one where body-covering tattoos, piercings, and unusual hair colors are more norm than exception.

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Recruiting has the potential to take a more central role in what I call “idea recruiting.” The premise of idea recruiting is that finding great ideas as much as we find great employees will drive business success.

To this end, companies like Xerox are experimenting with incubation funds and even building a presence in Second Life, where members build virtual businesses (with real dollars) based on their creativity.

College recruiting, which had all the activity of a ghost town for a few years after the dot-com crash, is another great place to find ideas and build relationships with high-potential students you may one day hire.

It’s worth remembering that Bill Gates and Paul Allen dropped out of college and set up shop in their garages. As an example, Boeing launched The Boeing Challenge on Facebook as a way to build their employer brand while capturing potential interns and entry-level hires.

But there’s another missed opportunity here: finding disruptors before they either find you or join forces with one of your competitors. For example, Kraft is trying to join forces with innovative minds outside of the company with its Innovate with Kraft website.

Intel, recognizing how fast new technology products are being developed, is trying to build a business by identifying Web 2.0 innovators early in their development cycle so they can be positioned to big rewards down the road. There are dozens of other examples of idea recruiting:

Clearly, many of the people identified through these challenges could be outstanding future employees. The question then becomes: does our company have an environment conducive to innovation, where innovators, disruptors, and new ideas can thrive?

While many of us have “innovation weeks” and similar things in our companies, most job promotions are reserved for people with political skills. Very often, disruptors are either shunned or shown the door while yes-men advance rapidly. We’ve all seen this happen.

At its heart, this is really an employer-branding exercise. Do you have the right employment value proposition to attract and retain the radical innovators who can take your business to the next level? Revamped internal mobility initiatives and performance-review processes are essential to building an innovation culture.

The game in business is changing. Let’s start thinking about how we hire and promote the people with the best ideas, not just the best resumes.

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.


4 Comments on “Idea Recruiting

  1. So happy to find you Dave.

    Great ideas and Great Resumes are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Hopefully in looking at a great resume you would find those superb ideas represented and the results they cultivated presented as part of the work history.

    Yes, I have seen ‘yes men’ advanced, but that is largely driven by the company culture. If the culture rewards talk without substance, then ‘yes men’ will advance.

    If the company measures results closely and coaches on those results…then you can only fake it for a short period of time.

    Glad you back in the saddle and looking forward to you unleashing your creative side even more.

  2. Thank you for your article, David.

    It has been my experience that most companies pay great lip service to the concept of innovation (‘Innovate or die!’), and while substantial numbers of business consultants can make healthy incomes selling books and seminars preaching the need to do so, most companies (including some very successful and ‘innovative’ ones) do little more than tinker with a few minor details of their plans and structure. There is very little done to challenge the basic assumptions.

    Here are two examples of unchallenged basic assumptions in recruiting:
    1) Many companies seek to hire primarily or exclusively graduates of ‘great schools’ with ‘high GPAs’. *From my research, I have found no empirical evidence that such people are more ‘successful’ in a work environment than those who do not fit that category. Yet, many of us continue to recruit with this faulty premise driving our efforts.

    2) Behavioral interviewing: If I understand the concept and my training course properly, the underlying assumption is that past behavior is a valid predictor of future behavior. This is valid as long as the past behavior is identical with that of the future behavior. In other words, it makes sense if you’re hiring someone to do exactly what they’ve always done. **It does NOT accurately predict what they would do in novel circumstances, which is presumably why we would be hiring them.

    IMHO, it does not benefit most people in large corporate settings to challenge the status quo in anything but the most innocuous ways, unless they have very powerful forces backing them up. It is much better for their careers to ‘go along’ giving 110% of precisely what is asked for. If you wish to be more ‘innovative’: work in a smaller organization, create your own, or be an independent.

    Keith Halperin,
    SPHR Emeritus

    * I am interested in any reputable studies that DO indicate this; I just haven’t found them. If you can cite any, please contact me. -kh

    ** Again, if you can show me some empirical evidence to the contrary, I’m willing to stand corrected. -kh

  3. Keith,
    Well said! And perhaps more frightening that you have to tell anyone.

    Regarding the ‘past performance’ thing… adaptability is a skill in itself, and while there is always the opportunity to rise to the occasion, it falls into the category of predictable behavior.

    Cynical though it sounds, as a general principle, you’re right about choosing freedom in a smaller company. My career advice has always been:
    Train until you are 30, in the biggest/best firms you can find;

    Practice your craft, what ever it is until you are 40, moving to advance your level of responsibility (management experience);

    If you are a senior manager by 40, you can weigh the options of staying in the big time, or moving down to a smaller company in a more senior position, otherwise, somewhere between 30 and 40, you definitely need to be moving out and up – probably in a smaller firm – or START YOUR OWN.

    The trade-off in your career is always training versus authority. Usually, you can’t get both in the same place (at the speed you are capable of advancing or getting paid).

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it appears to me that business today is less interested in the potential growth of an employee, than 50 years ago. Perhaps it was a romantic myth of my age that companies were excited to find candidates who could grow quickly and do more than they were hired to do. That every position was a line position.

    Thanks for the fresh air, Keith. Sometimes we forget.
    Best regards,

  4. Russ,
    Don’t get caught up in the details… what Dave is speaking to is the need for more than a change in recruiting. Recruiting isn’t to blame for our culture of ‘risk aversion’. With age and success comes the desire to hold on to and protect our gains. The prevailing management culture of today (and American culture in general) is maintenance oriented. But global competition is about to throw us back into the jungle with a different set of survival rules. Not pretty, not fair… but it’s the only game in town.

    Give some thought to what Florida and Goodnight are suggesting in ‘Managing for Creativity’-
    We all have a part to play in changing the corporate culture. And Dave’s right – creative people are not drones… and the ones you want aren’t looking for today’s corporate environment, either.

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