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3 Interview Questions for Screening Innovative Employees

Here's how to hire for what innovation expert Lisa Bodell calls "strategic imagination."
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In their 2009 article for the Harvard Business Review called "The Innovator's DNA," authors Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen share five key skills that entrepreneurial innovators possess. One of them is "questioning"--specifically, the act of questioning the status quo: 

Most of the innovative entrepreneurs we interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture. Michael Dell, for instance, told us that his idea for founding Dell Computer sprang from his asking why a computer cost five times as much as the sum of its parts. "I would take computers apart...and would observe that $600 worth of parts were sold for $3,000." In chewing over the question, he hit on his revolutionary business model.

If you're a CEO, your ongoing challenge is getting more "questioners" in your organization. The problem? On one level, it's the traditional interview process. In traditional interviewers, it's the organization asking the questions. How can you gauge a prospective employee's ability to ask subversive questions, if all she does during an interview is answer yours?  

In a superb post for strategy+business, innovation leader Lisa Bodell, the CEO of futurethink and the author of Kill the Company, provides 14 interview questions that can help you and your HR department find these questioners. Three of the 14 questions are part of a category Bodell calls "strategic imagination." She defines this as "the ability to dream with purpose and generate new ideas."

"Dream with purpose," if you read it too fast, can sound like a seductive TED-talk bromide. But if you unpack it, what it describes is the rare talent of thinking imaginatively, yet simultaneously being able to find the practical, revenue-generating heart of a creative idea. 

Here are three interview questions from Bodell that will help you screen job candidates for strategic imagination:

1. If you had one month and a $50,000 budget to tackle any project, what would it be? This question gets to the heart of what some innovative organizations actually allow employees to do, on a smaller scale. For example, Atlassian, a software company based in Sydney, Australia, holds what it calls "FedEx Days." One day each quarter, employees can work on anything related to Atlassian products.

The rub? You have to ship whatever you're working on within 24 hours. Employees then get to present their projects to the entire company. It's not $50,000, nor is it one month, but it's a chance for employees to wave a magic wand and work on anything. Similarly, Constant Contact, a $285-million maker of marketing software based in Waltham, Mass., holds quarterly innovation jams and has codified an internal "green light process" to quickly churn through whatever ideas employees generate, at the jams or elsewhere. 

2. Which external jolts or wild cards have the potential to significantly impact our industry? This question gets to the heart of business-model disruption. Perhaps if an incumbent PC maker had asked this question rigorously enough, it would have anticipated Michael Dell's brilliant disruption, based on the vulnerability Dell discovered in the industry's staid pricing model.  

3. Which new customer segments will emerge in five years? How will those customers discover our product? This question is the distillation of a provocation from legendary management guru Peter Drucker, who asked, "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?"

The overall idea is the central one behind business-model innovation: That your business model, even if highly lucrative for many years, requires constant revision so your organization can reach new customers and anticipate (and ward off) potentially disruptive challengers. As Scott Anthony points out in an HBR post, one potential question you can ask yourself--in the quest to revise your business model--is, "Which customers can't participate in [my] market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions?"

It's no coincidence that Anthony's business model question is similar to Bodell's interview question for screening innovative candidates. You want to hire employees who'll help ensure the long-term viability of your business. Remember, today's uncomfortable questions drive tomorrow's lasting solutions. The key is finding the employees who'll boldly ask and answer those questions, when no one else wants to do so. 

Last updated: Mar 27, 2014




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