Recruiting, Innovation, and Thinking Differently

“You know what they say: ‘Innovation is the one thing that we have to focus on; it’s innovate or die.’ And I don’t believe that. I think there is something really wrong with this huge notion that everything is innovation.” – Alf Rehn, Ph.D., Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Royal Institute of Technology

Do you know of Alf Rehn? If you don’t, you might want to become familiar with some of his thinking. It is edgy, contrarian, and relevant to recruiters who want to lead as opposed to follow, create as opposed to copy, and invent as opposed to consume. (See for a sound bite. Then, click on his name on the right and “in concert” for more.)

Today’s recruiter has a very difficult job. Do it on the corporate side and you can be saddled with 40 requisitions that need to be filled yesterday. Do it on the search/agency side and you only get paid if you make the hit. Other challenges include:

  • Candidates expect timely responses.
  • Hiring managers want great candidates.
  • Few, if any, really understand how recruiters work.
  • Those who have never actually recruited often manage the function. (They later become “thought leaders.” Just shoot me…)
  • Many administrative employees with “good personalities” are often turned into recruiters. (Brilliant career development, yes?)
  • The OFCCP asks much but solves little.

I can go on, but why bother? With recruiting becoming increasingly complex, and endless fears of a labor shortage looming, we are at Code Red for developing innovative methodologies that identify talent wherever it can be found as thought leaders carp endlessly (speaking at conferences, eating fatty appetizers, guzzling jug wine) as we enter a new and different scenario of why the sky is falling.

But wait! Before we allow these thought leaders to innovate greater levels of complexity and stress into our lives, we need to stop and think about our work. We need to reflect on how we can improve the quality of what we produce and how to keep what is meaningful and productive while avoiding what is not. We must evaluate everything that is new and be wary of “innovative” solutions that add more work but do little to improve bottom-line results.

(Speaking of thinking, do you understand the difference between creative and critical thinking, and why they should never coexist? If not, I implore you to read Think Better by Tim Hurson. If you do this, you will, without question, think better!)

So, what must we do to be more effective, less stressed, and have balanced, civilized lives? Innovate? At times, yes, but for the most part, I suspect not. Quite frankly, we need to simplify; to take a hard look at what is really working effectively and separate it from what is not. (As with most things, the 80-20 rule applies more often than not. From where are the 80% of your successes coming?)

The time has come for all of us to explore a different reality, where excellence, however elusive, is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing more to take away. We need to think first and act second when the bell of innovation beckons us, understanding that while technology makes something possible, we still need a good business case for spending resources in its execution. (Doing it because everyone else is doing it or because it is new or fun is not a business case.)

Let’s continue with technology as an example. For many recruiters, technology is the Holy Grail. But, long before the Internet existed or a PC was on every desk, there was recruiting that was monumentally successful. I know because I was there.

Consider social networking. There is a new site popping up every 23 minutes. Each day, I am zinged, pinged, poked, and prodded to join and/or link and/or network with someone new. I am always happy to do this and enjoy the virtual camaraderie, but I seldom, if ever, hear from that person again. I look at “candidates” on both Facebook and MySpace and absolutely cringe in horror around some of the content. I’m not being critical; it’s just my reaction to what I see. (Tell me, how many people did you put in jobs off of these sites last year?)

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Now let’s look at blogging. I might be one of the four or five people left on the Earth who doesn’t blog. Honestly, I get so much flack from so many people for not blogging that I am thinking of joining the Witness Protection Program. Really, do we need another recruiting blog?

How about instant messaging (IM)? I seldom do that, but John Sullivan tells me that I am a dinosaur for not doing so. I disagree. IM is a tool for certain recruiters in certain situations, but it is not for everyone and it’s certainly not appropriate all the time. (You don’t hear me calling him a dinosaur because he wears those vests, do you?)

The point of this is simple: Technology is often seen as the great enabler, but, at times, it can be the great disabler. We need more face time to form deeper relationships in order to communicate more effectively. In my last project, I never met any of my clients. Not even one. Our communication was truncated, with static-ridden cell phone lines on a good day and e-mail on a bad one. It was a miserable way to work.

Perhaps the time has come to de-innovate (yes, I made up that word; artistic license) to remove the distractions and focus on developing enhanced levels of understanding and communication with the customers we serve. Maybe the time has come to pick up the phone and reach out, not to those we know but to those we do not know. Perhaps the time has come to recognize that true friendships are not formed through pixilation and true relationships do not come from Friendster but from the people with whom we have meaningful dialogues based upon areas of commonality, shared vision, and mutual respect.

Perhaps Alf Rehn is correct. What if real innovation does not produce more but produces less? What if the ingrained belief that new and enhanced technology leads us to better solutions is seriously flawed thinking? (Are you really more productive with Office 2007? And, where did the Windows go?) What if we can do our jobs with less as opposed to more, and the solutions to our problems are unearthed in elegant, focused simplicity as opposed to endless, expanding possibility?

What if we were more successful, with less of the noise, nonsense, and gadgets than we are with them? Think about it. Can you be happy and productive with that type of reality?

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


16 Comments on “Recruiting, Innovation, and Thinking Differently

  1. Great job Howard. I know that it takes time to organize a well structured and meaningful article, so thank you.

    You give us two words that, I believe, will offer great lenses for us to peer through in 2008: Think and Simplify

  2. Thanks, Howard. I’m sure there is a balance to be found, of course. Some of those social networking sites allow me to pick up the phone and call those I do not know, as you suggest. Your call to weigh the impact of all the latest innovations is a good one, even though I think technological innovations have brought far more to the table than they have taken away.

  3. Howard, outstanding article. I enjoy your way of injecting reality into situations where the TA community is constantly being sold something ‘innovative’ and/or game changing – Whether it’s a new ATS that learns from itself, a new search-string generator or ‘cheat sheet’ that is going to revolutionize internet research, or a new job board that promises to provide only passive candidates, I barely have time to wade through advertisements and actually do my job!

    In the words of the great Sergio Zyman, perhaps we need to focus less on innovation and more on renovation. In his 2004 book, ‘Renovate Before You Innovate: Why Doing the New Thing Might Not Be the Right Thing’, Sergio again breaks new ground in the marketing world by teaching professionals to think about improving what they already have before trying something radically new.

    Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds like good medicine in a world that seems to be over-advertised to, and moreover, methodically taught to believe that solutions are in new products and toys, not in the improvement of the process or individual TA employees themselves!

    Here’s an example: I often see TA leaders focusing on increasing the quantity of high-potential candidates, when their fallout rate is 50% or more! Is the problem really ‘more’ HiPo candidates? . . . or is the problem closing the ones you already have in hand?

    Deep inside, we all know the answer to that question, but it’s easy to say our results would be better if we had the newest and coolest tools du jour. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t have to tell a client, ‘Um, it’s not the sourcing quality (or the technology) that is the problem here . . . ‘

  4. Howard – very nice article indeed. I generally do not respond as I am too busy doing what you point out, which is building on what is working well by tweaking, testing and improving but every once in a while an article strikes a cord or raw nerve with me. People that know me, know I say what I mean and I mean what I say… here goes from a Corporate Recruiting perspective 🙂

    I have had it up to my back teeth with people saying ‘why can’t you find more ways to find more talent’ = Innovation. The reality is that most of the ways to identify talent have been exhausted and the new ones that pop up from time to time (Social Networking Tools, Blogging, Twitter, etc, you get the gist) yield very little (yet + maybe).

    Wow…big statement you might say. Yes it is and the only way I can make such a statement is to have historically measured and continue to measure the effectiveness of these source’s or approaches. The reality is that the majority of organizations if they look carefully at where their hires come from (and track it accurately removing the historical issues of capturing source of candidate data), they will find that the nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

    Employee Referrals (generally are the highest source) = Should be 50%+
    Careers Web Page (this has been increasing slowly over the last few years) = 20%+ is good
    Job Boards (have increased over the last few years but is flattening out) = 15%+ is good
    Networking/Cold Calling/Headhunting (Generally referred to as Sourcing) = companies will fluctuate from 0-20% of hires
    Agencies (should be your lowest percentage) = less than 10% should be the aim for more strategic partnering/hiring

    Where are all the % of candidates from LinkedIn, Myspace, Spoke, Ryze, FaceBook, Twitter, Blogging etc……I could go on.

    Most companies will find that yes there are a small number of hires from these niche spaces but at this stage people seem to want to write endless articles, comments, posts about innovative new techniques. I see leaders that get their organization in a tizzy over an article or conference speakers suggestion with something that will yield very little or in simple business terms is a poor ROI (Return on the investment).

    What leaders should really be doing (and yes some are) is focus on on adjustments and improvements to the sourcing channels that can have the biggest impact to results. Unless you are a corporate leader where volume or quality is not your major problem to solve the go innovation crazy.

    Look at what a slight improvement, tweak or adjustment would have on a employee referral program or improving the usability of your careers page…….We all know that Employee referrals are the greatest source and quality of candidates so why not invest the time to see how you might be able to improve it or re-invigorate it with the existing employee base…..But unfortunately a lot of leaders or industry luminaries like ‘new, shiny and bright objects’ so they gravitate towards ‘new’ and ‘innovation’ vs. the hard slog which is quality improvements and adjustments.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like innovation as much as the next person, heck I even come up with some brilliant ones from time to time, but at the end of the day when business leadership is looking at me for results and ‘what have you done for me lately’, I learnt many years ago that ‘new, bright and shiny’ does not necessarily equal results.

    My 2 cents on the subject and I will now go back to adjusting, tweaking and improving what I know works



  5. ‘We need more face time to form deeper relationships in order to communicate more effectively. In my last project, I never met any of my clients. Not even one.’

    Amen! In today’s world, though, more (often any) face time isn’t an option — at least not traditional face time.

    This is when technology can be an enabler, but ONLY when it is used in a thoughtful manner. For example when face-to-face isn’t feasible, a Webcam can allow the recruiter and job seeker or client to interact at a more personal level than via phone alone. In our virtual world, developing deep relationships is challenging — but not insurmountable.

    In this context, I argue that ‘simple’ is better defined as ‘natural’ — that is, in the absence of face-to-face, a mix of communicative technologies should create a virtual relationship that feels as natural as a traditional face-to-face relationship.

    ‘Naturalness’ is the ‘missing link’ that needs to be built into the virtual workplace environment to simplify the building of deep relationships. To Howard’s point ‘we can do our jobs with less as opposed to more’ (my comments) when simplified marries naturalness.

  6. ‘Recruiting, Innovation and Thinking Differently’ is far too long. A major number of key strokes could have been preserved by summing it up along the lines of ‘When it comes to recruiting (technology, resources, methodology etc.), take a ‘shopping cart approach’. Use where/what you can and leave the rest for others or another time.’

    The article is wonderful for a contrarian, but it hardly passes for ‘thinking differently’.

  7. I have to agree with both Rob and Howard on this. The situation of innovation here reminds me of a very important concept that is gospel in the finance world (and as of late, has been gaining traction in the marketing world): Invest in the areas that you know historically provide the strongest returns . . . and eliminate or cut back immensely on those investments that only yield incremental returns.

    For example, if you know that 80% of your beverage product is consumed by a particular market segment, then do what you can to increase consumption within that very segment. Sure, you can invest in other market segments if they pose growth opportunities, but don’t take resources and money away from your ‘meat and potatoes’ or ‘sacred cow’ to undergo the ultra capital-intensive route of driving demand within a completely new market segment (yes, it is here that companies barely, if ever, break even until you reach a critical mass of consumption). Is the prospect of creating a new market segment appealing and exciting? Sure it is . . . but don’t get lost in the hype. As Robert Mcnamara (the former US Sec of Defense during the Vietnam War) says, ‘Seeing and believing are both often wrong.’

    To Rob’s point . . . if 50% of all hires come from employee referral (and maybe even 75% of your highest 12-mth QOH ratings), then why aren’t recruiting leaders spending more to increase these numbers??? Have we reached a point of saturation in which incremental investment yields little to no return? I seriously doubt it.

    When I first got into lifting weights about 12 years ago, I read a quote from the late Mike Mentzer that sticks with me to this day, ‘Water is the greatest bodybuilding supplement out there, but nobody ever talks about that because you don’t have to buy it out of a magazine.’

  8. Dear all, thought I’d write briefly on both Howard’s article and some of the comments it has generated. I am obviously quite taken by the kind words and undeserved praise Howard heaps on me, but I also think he is making some pretty fine points. I don’t think anyone would go so far as to generally condemn innovation. Still, the relentless hunt for the next shiny thing, not to mention the sheer buzz around innovation, is making more and more people uncomfortable.

    I think the key point to remember is that we’ve become so used to assuming that innovation is a good and necessary thing that we often don’t even think properly about the options we have. In order to gain legitimacy, we often revert to preaching the gospel of innovation, as this is the safest option. Back in the day you knew that no-one ever got fired for buying IBM, today no-one ever gets fired for suggesting an innovation project.

    But what I think Howard is onto is that this gets us into trouble simply by making things more complicated than they have to be. Yes, Facebook is a great tool (but becoming increasingly uncool, as the hip kids are already out looking for something even cooler and less pedestrian), but in recruiting the lowly meeting over coffee is a greater tool still. And we only have so much time and energy to spend…

    I have no problem with innovations – I’d die without net access and mobile phones (well, not really, but I am not willing to forgo them without a fight). But in an age where everyone is touting their innovative credentials, it might be that the most creative thing to do is to go against the stream.

    My prediction is that 2008 will be the year when ‘simplicity’ becomes the hot topic. We need a simpler life, partly because simplicity can make us more efficient. I’m considering shutting down my Facebook-account (yes, I have one), getting rid of a lot of the other innovation-chaff I’ve collected, and generally pare down. Right now, this seems a lot more beneficial to my working life than adding innovations to it. I think Howard would agree.

  9. Joshua,

    Excellent point. I couldnt agree more. We all think that the grass is greener, even in marketing initiatives. Most industry will take for granted that segment which ‘floats the boat’ for lack of a better term. It generally happens because incentives are attached to ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ markets. I also really like the water quote, thanks, that will be used by me in the future I’m certain.

  10. A thoughtful and thought-provoking article! While you may not want to be just another recruiting blog, I want to encourage you to find a place for your ?voice? in the greater recruiting and staffing community.

    I am little sensitive to the term ?dinosaur? as I may just be one (at least chronologically). And interestingly, I stopped worrying about fashion when I entered the world of corporate high tech recruiting world (denim is always in fashion).

    I think your article really brought out the state of things in the post modern business world. We seem to be stuck with in this ?either/or? mind set. Specifically, if you don?t use certain contemporary tools (?high tech?), then you are out of step and somehow stuck in a prehistoric age. And the opposite echo is we will not provide the right level of human interaction unless you go back to the good old ways (?high touch?). There seems to be an eternal struggle between ?high tech? and ?high touch.? Either you are data mining, email blasting, cyber sleuth surfing deep into the hidden web OR you are a control freakish sales person managing attempting to micromanage a hiring manager and a prospect in order to get both parties to say yes. As with most ?either/or? extremes, practical reality takes us to the middle ground. Perhaps it is time to drop the ?either/or? paradigm. Perhaps that is the innovation you are suggesting? Or perhaps it fits the definition of thinking differently?

    I have found that the ?both/and? model fits the current state of recruiting much more realistically. I have found that some of my prehistoric recruiting lessons and techniques are foundational for the success of more technology driven initiatives in my daily activities. Frankly, I have doing the same thing for three and one half decades; it is just that today?s version is better, faster, global, and on a much larger stage.

    For example, my current role is to develop a talent community for specific types of technical, marketing & creative talent for a consumer products oriented division. This role is a ?both/and? role. It requires both ?high tech? and ?high touch? to develop the types of relationships that community requires. And you can trace the roots of this effort to a desk, a phone, a rolodex, and a word processor with snail mail.

    The prehistoric approach might work today, but certainly is not as impactful and effective as the technology clothed version of today. And it certainly would not meet a better, faster, and global initiative.

    A final thought about the need for interpersonal communication. Even in those ancient days, I wrestled with the tension between high tech and high touch. Back then, the question was, do I really need to meet the prospect in person before sending out on an interview. Or do I really need to meet the client in person to gain a sense of the company and its culture. The right balance was worked out. Today, I find the dynamic between high tech and high touch still is at the center of recruiting conversations. The questions are do I really need to personally telephone interview the prospect before sending them on an interview. Or do I really need to set down with the hiring manager and understand their organization. And, history tells me the right balance will be discovered.

  11. Please see the last paragraph of Alf’s posting; and yes Alf, I most certainly do agree!

    Howard Adamsky

  12. Howard —

    What a thought provoking article! I agree 100% with your article and with Mr. McIntosh’s perspective.

    Just because all these nice and shiny tools gives us access to more recruiters, it doesn’t mean that I am more effective than I was without them. We still have to have real-life conversations whether it is over the phone or in-person. We still need to build long-lasting relationships based on trust.

    Just so you know, Howard, I have over 6 million people in my LinkedIn network. How many do you have?

    As always, thanks for providing your thoughts to an interesting topic.


  13. Couldn’t agree more with the views here.

    The Logic of the Industry has been always around Relationship Capital & the Industry & the function works to ensure that all efforts remain focused on the core mission- to effectively build relationship capital with people that drive their clients – external or internal- success. It is a mission that has driven recruiting in the past, and the regardless of the advancements in processes and technology, will continue to drive the industry in the future.

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