So many companies profess to seek employees who "think outside the box" that the expression has become one of the biggest clichés in business. But hiring innovative thinkers poses big challenges. Technical skills and knowledge can be measured; experience, with some persistence, can be verified; but creativity is more mysterious. There's not even complete agreement on what it is.
In business, and for our purposes, let's say that creativity is simply finding new solutions to old problems. In that sense, much work -- or at least much of the best work -- is creative work. Inventing a new product or technology certainly qualifies, but so does coming up with a fresh marketing approach or opening a new sales category. Still, the potential field is not unlimited. Jobs that are heavily structured, with a lot of repetition, generally don't require a lot of creativity, and filling such positions with creative people can leave them, and you, frustrated.
The pages that follow will introduce you to some strategies for bringing innovators on board. It can be time-consuming and expensive to distinguish truly creative people from among your applicant pool. So the most elaborate strategies should be reserved for the most significant hires. "It's most important when it's going to cost you a lot of money if the new hire makes a mistake," says Wendell Williams, managing director of ScientificSelection.com and an employee assessment consultant in Marietta, Georgia.
1. Decide Which Kind of Creativity Counts
Successful hiring for creativity starts with deciding just how much of it you can tolerate. Human resources consultants report that many companies find it difficult to integrate true outside-the-box thinkers. Says Scott Erker, of the Pittsburgh-based HR consultants Development Dimensions International: "What you'll quickly get is a caveat: I need focused creativity, because creativity for creativity's sake doesn't get you anywhere."
One useful way to think about it is to distinguish between what Williams calls breadth creativity, which is the ability to see the big picture and draw connections between seemingly disparate events or trends, and depth creativity, which is ingenuity within a specific realm, such as one's job. Unless you are hiring a Disney Imagineer, chances are you are looking for the latter.
Williams recommends reviewing your company's record of reacting to creative proposals to define just how out of the box employees should think: "You want specific examples of what's acceptable, what's not acceptable, what's too outlandish." If you find that the record shows a limited appetite for welcoming creativity, it may be time to refurbish the company culture. (See "Building a Creative Culture,")
2. Attract the Brightest Lights
Market your company to prospects. Each way you introduce the company to potential employees, starting with the career pages of your website, is an opportunity to convey the organization's goals and values. The message should be delivered creatively, says Libby Anderson, principal of the Naples, Florida, consulting firm Human Resources Now. Cirque du Soleil, for example, which is widely regarded for a creative environment in even its business operations, makes its case with employee testimonials on YouTube. It also maintains a Facebook page and recently hosted a Twitter session to attract physiotherapists, says Jacques Bergeron, the company's director of talent management.
Set the tone with the job description. Likewise, a job posting with flair is more likely to draw inspired candidates than a standard notice. That was the experience of Viget Labs, a Falls Church, Virginia, Web design company seeking an office manager. Viget conducted an experiment by posting two job descriptions: one standard, the other an impassioned and conversational call for talent. The latter drew fewer responses, but the candidates were more ambitious.
You can also use the job description to filter for some kinds of creativity. When artistic creativity is called for, ask candidates to submit a sample of their work. When other types of ingenuity are required, ask that candidates include in their cover letter proposed solutions to a specific challenge they might face on the job.
Seek adaptability. Being open to new experiences is important, says Erker, because "it's through various experiences that I pick up the tools that I need to look at a problem from different perspectives." So it's worth probing for experiences that aren't usually captured in a resumé, such as traveling or living abroad. Even frequently changing jobs can bring value to an applicant if it reflects an eagerness to take on new challenges and opportunities (as opposed to failing to master old ones).
Recruit from nontraditional sources. Ask your most creative employees for referrals. And consider looking outside your industry. Expertise can be acquired; creativity generally can't.
3. Put Candidates to the Test
The interview. Most HR professionals recommend asking candidates to describe on-the-job experiences that involved the skills and abilities the prospective job requires -- what's known as behavioral interviewing. When the requirement is creativity, for example, a question could go something like this: "Describe an experience when you were faced with a new problem and how you handled it." (For more behavioral questions, see "Plumbing for Creativity,") A variation on this asks candidates to respond to hypothetical situations. At Cirque du Soleil, "we usually have the manager come up with a challenge or situation their team faced recently and have the candidate come up with solutions," says Bergeron.
In either case, says Williams, who specializes in testing, it's crucial to evaluate the whole answer, including the thought process involved, not just the result. "We pay attention to how the person approaches and analyzes the situations, takes into consideration the different stakeholders, the tradeoffs they propose, and their implementation plan," says Bergeron.
In the 1990s, many technology and other self-described innovative companies borrowed a trick from Microsoft and began asking "puzzle questions" meant to probe faculties for logic and creativity. (One example: How would you weigh a jet without using scales?) However, in a provocative book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, author William Poundstone cast doubt on the value of such questions: "They are too often mixed in with tricks, traps, power games, and hazing stunts." Microsoft itself reportedly no longer uses them. (There is, by the way, no single correct answer to the airplane question.)
Samples and simulations. For explicitly creative work (such as writing, art, or design), you can ask a candidate to create sample work. Cirque du Soleil, for example, asks designers to create acrobatic accessories online using its 3-D software. For many positions, you can create a role-playing scenario -- dealing with an angry customer, say -- or turn it into a written exercise. A marketing candidate, for instance, might be given 30 minutes to outline a campaign.
Intelligence and personality tests. There is no consensus on which written tests best illuminate creative aptitude. Some experts correlate creativity with abstract intelligence, which is the ability to see patterns in a given environment and from those discern new trends and opportunities. Williams often favors abstract reasoning tests -- graphics-based exams that require the taker to detect patterns in numbers or shapes. Others turn to personality and preference assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Building a Creative Culture
Although companies are wise to loosen up a bit for people doing explicitly creative work such as design, creative doesn't necessarily mean casual -- you don't need beanbag chairs and foosball tables to nurture innovation. Still, you will have to find ways to inspire and motivate a creative team and then be ready to embrace the results. "If you put those people in an environment that squashes creativity, you'll go nowhere," says Scott Erker. "They'll be fired, or they'll put their resumé out and find somewhere else to be creative."
Inspire with work. For many creative people, the work itself is a powerful motivator -- they feel passionate about it and are energized when they do it. Keep them busy, and, within prudent bounds, let them do the work their way.
Compensate with care. In the creative environment, adding one-time financial incentives to the mix can be a distraction -- or worse, if the employee feels manipulated by the program. However, when creativity produces ongoing income for a company, the creator should share in the long-term profits, says Katherine A. Lawrence, a lecturer and scholar with the University of Michigan.
Create happiness. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School of people working on creative projects found that they were least productive on days when they felt anger, anxiety, or fear. They were more creative on days when they felt happy. And they were most likely to have a breakthrough the day after a happy day.
Plumbing for Creativity
In her book, High-Impact Interview Questions, management consultant Victoria Hoevemeyer provides sample questions that probe for the qualities hiring managers seek in job candidates. Here are several of her suggestions for probing creativity:
★A lot of times, we use tried-and-true solutions to solve problems, and it works. Tell me about a time when the tried-and-true solution did not work. Were you able to solve the problem? How?
★Tell me about a situation in which you have had to come up with several new ideas in a hurry. Were they accepted? Were they successful?
★Describe the most significant plan or program that you ever developed or implemented.
★Tell me about a time when you created a new process or program that was considered risky.
Inc.com maintains an archive on hiring for creativity at www.inc.com/hiring-for-creativity.
Organizational psychologist Mark Batey has published informative articles about creativity in the workplace at psychologytoday.com/blog/working-creativity.
One popular test for measuring abstract intelligence in the workplace is Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, distributed by Pearson (pearsonassessments.com). For more information about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, see myersbriggs.org.