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What Really Drives Innovation at Work?

by Jim Martin

Every company wants to be innovative. A Google search of the term “innovation” brings back nearly 400 million results. We operate in a business climate where the pace is accelerating exponentially while seething with competition. While many companies want to keep up, only a few actually do. Fast-growth companies understand that their most valuable resource is human capital. Innovation isn’t born in the strategy, the process, or the code. It’s born in the people you hire. By developing a clear vision and systematic approach to build a culture of innovation, companies can unleash the lifeblood of sustainable competitive advantage.

Hiring Is An Important Business Decision. Whom you hire and why is probably one of the most important decisions a company can make. You should seek to hire two types of people:

  1. Those who are more comfortable (and productive) in a structured role, doing things that don’t significantly change from the general plan; and

  2. Those who are fueled by the energy of a crazy, fast-paced environment. This is not a conversation about right or wrong. It’s more about finding a mix of candidates that will add to your existing organization and enjoy being part of it. For a culture of innovation to blossom, you need the balance of both; the challenge is making it all work in harmony.

Fit Trumps Experience. There is no silver bullet for developing an innovative culture. It’s a tricky dance trying to match a candidate’s needs and desires to the employer’s. To interview, bring candidates into the office for an hour or two, and introduce them to different people. Get a group of people in a room, order a pizza, grab a few beers, and see where the conversation goes in a more relaxed setting. Rather than asking mundane questions that candidates will have rehearsed, ask them to solve problems. There are no right or wrong answers, but responses should fit in with the core values of your company and show good thought processes. After some time, you’ll start to get an unfiltered view of their personality and how they think, and it will be much clearer whether they will fit into the team dynamic. In other words, the world’s best drummer may not be the best drummer for your band. Focus on the band.

In my organization, fit always trumps experience. A good candidate has a vision for where they want their career to go. Obviously, their current skills are table stakes, but don’t hire based solely on experience. Also consider a candidate’s desire to learn and where they want to go in the future.

Finally, culture is a fluid, organic thing. It’s like making a stew where all the ingredients complement one another. Each new employee brings a new flavor to the mix. It’s the job of senior leadership to ensure each hire brings traits that will improve others and the company as a whole.

Find People With an Entrepreneurial Frame of Mind. To build a strong culture, especially in smaller companies, look for employees who will treat your business as if it were their own - employees whose passion is so palpable that there isn’t really a distinction between work and play, employees who seek interests outside of work that are similar to the challenges they solve in the office. Look for people whose natural approach to things is something that will have a positive impact in the organization. Ask candidates what they do outside of work. Their outside interests provide great insight into their character. Asking these questions lets candidates show their passion for technology and innovation, and also show they have the desire to learn and take initiative.

Also, think about what your employees want and the environment where they operate best. For example, at our office, we have an arcade machine in case someone needs five minutes to clear the mind. We host hack-a-thons. We order pizza for dinner. Not everyone can support a Google environment, but it’s your job as a leader to find what works for your people to inspire and refuel. Sometimes employees just need to know they can talk to you without repercussions and that they’ll get the truth. All of this is critical to maintaining a healthy and vibrant culture.

Create a Space That Inspires. The corporate cubicle setup isn’t for everyone. Employees need to feel like they can be themselves at work. Encourage them to decorate their spaces; get democratic with the office layout. Do workers want the privacy of cubicles or the collaboration of an open environment? Build a ping-pong table, a breakfast nook, or a nap room. Create a space, like we do with our lab, where employees can experiment with new problems and technologies. Set up places to play and think.

I don’t believe you can measure productivity on how many hours a person is at the office, but rather on whether they accomplish what they set out to do with a quality end result. When you hire the right people and offer them the freedom and the opportunity to be themselves, the result is authentic, high-quality work. The best advice I could give to create a culture of innovation. Senior leadership needs to set the strategy, choose the destination, and build the team and path to success. The best leaders I know consider recruiting to be one of the most important activities in a company. Hire the right people and then get out of their way. Your job is to support the journey and continue to fine-tune the engine.