A CIO's secrets for hiring for innovation

IT is under more pressure than ever to innovate, disrupt, and fend against disruption - not classic IT competencies. To meet the demands, CIOs must hire and develop innovative team members.

"If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got." – John C. Maxwell

Ask most CEOs what they want from IT, and they will tell you they want the CIO's organization to drive innovation, fuel growth, enable change, and create competitive advantage. In fact, "leading innovation" was rated No. 3 on the 2016 Wall Street Journal list of CIO strategic priorities.

So why aren't most chief information officers transitioning to become chief innovation officers, as Daniel Burrus suggested in Harvard Business Review? My guess is that part of the problem is that CIOs and their organizations are stuck in a hiring pattern that doesn't select for innovative behavior. Here are three suggestions for hiring—and getting the most from—innovative employees.

IoT hiring: Throw away the cookie cutter

IT folks tend to hire other IT folks. We tend to look for the same qualifications (BS in computer science or related discipline, X number of years of experience, etc.). Finding innovative employees requires looking in unconventional places.

  • Hire from within the business. Several years ago, I needed to give a project team a boost to get them unstuck. I arranged a temporary assignment for a rising star in the business unit the team was supporting. She brought a totally different perspective and challenged their long-held assumptions. The result was a breakthrough product.
  • Look for unique talents within your existing staff. In one organization I led, I had a young woman who managed our desktop support organization. I discovered she had a unique talent for marketing. We developed a role for her in which she would create internal marketing campaigns for IT initiatives. It was a huge success and dramatically advanced our ability to roll out large, enterprisewide projects.
  • Use creative titles, and advertise in nontraditional places. Expand beyond the usual IT-only job boards, or better yet, use a good recruiter who can source candidates from unconventional places. Use titles that are less technical in nature, such as designer or creator, instead of more technical terms like developer or architect. (For more ideas, see this recent Harvard Business Review article on how creative job titles can energize workers.)

Interview for innovation

Ask questions designed to elicit insights into a person's ability to think and act creatively. Here are some examples:

  • "Tell me about something you have created."
  • "Tell me about a time when you created a new process or program that was considered risky."
  • "Tell me about a situation in which you had to come up with several new ideas in a hurry. Were they accepted? Were they successful?"
  • "Tell me about a time you took a risk."
  • "Tell me about one of your greatest failures and what you learned from it."

Notice that these are all open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer. Encourage the applicant to elaborate, and be sure that you listen carefully as they speak. You are looking for evidence of creativity, prudent risk taking, and learning from failure. If someone tells you they have never failed, stop the interview and move on! Someone who has never failed has never tried anything new.

Break the mold

As a general rule, IT organizations tend to be rigid and process-driven. To get innovation, you will need to get out of that box. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Create unconventional jobs. The internal marketing role I mentioned earlier is an example. Look at what needs to be done to make your organization more innovative, identify the gaps, and create a role to fill them. Expect that you may have to spend some time selling HR or maybe your boss, but if you are clear about the problems the position solves, you may find the sell is easier than you expected.
  • Mix up teams. Twice a year, the business school where I am teach co-sponsors an innovation challenge in which some of our top computer science and IT students compete in teams to develop innovative financial services apps. This past year we started adding art students to the teams. The artists provide great perspectives on graphics, interface design, and other nontechnical aspects, and push the teams to be far more creative as a result. Find a way to put people with different backgrounds and perspectives on teams. In fact, perhaps you want to hire an artist, a psychologist, or a musician whose job it is to work with teams to expand their thinking (see "Create unconventional jobs" above).
  • Encourage and celebrate creative setbacks. David Kelley, the founder of design firm IDEO, encourages his employees to "fail faster to succeed sooner." Embrace agile or lean methodologies that encourage rapid iterations that enable teams to "fail early, fail fast, fail cheap, and learn quickly." Learn from what doesn't work, and celebrate and communicate what you've learned.

Don't expect innovation to happen on its own. Finding, hiring, and keeping innovative employees will require leadership and unconventional thinking.