5 interview questions to detect an IT innovator

These days, it's more important than ever to find candidates who will help your organization grow. Consider this expert advice to identify innovators
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In today’s extremely competitive IT job market, how do you hire the extraordinary innovative IT talent that will be a game-changer for your business?

After thousands of interviews hiring innovators, I’ve learned what leads to better hiring and excellent team outcomes. Surprisingly, teams often overlook fundamental components of the hiring process. These four tips can help you focus on the basics before you start interviewing candidates:

1. Be careful not to "turducken" the innovative role

Sometimes when we want to hire someone who breaks the mold, we try to fit too many things into the description. A “turducken role” takes separate jobs and tries to mash them into one. When no one human can possess all these traits, not only will the talent pool be drastically reduced, but you’re setting this person up to fail since they can’t cover all of it.

[ Also read Digital transformation: 3 steps to enable innovation. ]

2. Get aligned

Develop consensus among all decision-makers regarding the job description and deliverables for the role. Otherwise, it will be difficult to identify the most promising candidates. A bonus would be to determine a future role the person could be promoted into. You will retain innovators longer if they understand their ultimate career path.

3. Assign resources to support the innovator ahead of time

Before you start interviewing, ensure you have the budget for new hires to make the changes that need to be made and internal champions to ease their path through the transformation. Otherwise, you might hire an amazing person who simply can’t get anything done.

4. Strive to attract visionary thinkers

The Holy Grail is finding individuals with visionary technical expertise and interpersonal skills that rival their technical ones. If someone has amazing ideas, but no one will help bring them to life, the transformation is doomed from the get-go.

5 key interview questions to assess innovation aptitude

The interviewing process needs to be designed to spot true innovators, avoid imposters, and ultimately lead to improved retention. The following questions help showcase a candidate’s persuasion power, test their ability to think on their feet, and inspire just the right amount of introspection.

1. What is a unique idea you created and successfully implemented? How did you champion it in your organization? What were the results?

Sometimes innovators are wonderful at generating creative ideas but not at collaboration. When evaluating an interviewee’s response, consider the strength and originality of the idea, as well as how effectively they inspired others to see it through. As a follow-up question, ask what they wish they had done differently.

2. What would your current team say is your most misunderstood thing? How did you correct this misperception?

Responses reveal self-awareness (or lack thereof) and a glimpse at a candidate’s personality, perceived or otherwise.

3. Teach me something in three minutes or less. You have one minute to determine what you will teach me.

Whether someone is teaching how to choose the best programming language for a project or how to yodel, assess how effectively they engage you in the lesson. Were they good teachers? Did they stick to the time parameters? Did they explain why the lesson is important?

4. What is the most difficult group you have had to get buy-in or alignment from, and how did you do it?

Listen to learn more to hear if interviewees understood the needs of the group they were trying to engage and if and how they tailored their approach accordingly. And find out what the results were. Did it work?

5. What is the most complex project you have ever worked on? Why was it complicated? How did you explain it to others?

This question will help you spot “complexity busters,” domain experts who can crystallize a complex topic so anyone at your organization can understand it – a hallmark of an effective innovator.

Beware of "innovator imposter" red flags

IT innovators are rare. “Imposters,” less so. Here are two warning signs that a candidate may not have the combination of talent and interpersonal skills personality needed to bring transformative technology initiatives to life:

  • They think something is more innovative than it is. Ideal candidates will acknowledge the difference between “new to the world” and “new to me” or “new to my company.”
  • They overstate their involvement in a project. Collaborative, self-aware employees give credit to their team and specify the role they played in an initiative as opposed to claiming sole ownership of everything.

Improve innovator retention by understanding what makes them tick

To keep creative employees engaged, consider agreeing on a passion project – a task that may not exactly tie to their role’s objectives but allows them to apply their talents and find joy at work while delivering value to the organization. The employee can work on this task in addition to business-critical initiatives. Just be sure to set aside time. Otherwise, the passion project can overtake the time needed for actual transformation.

Lastly, regularly discuss “what’s next” for the employee and the company. Innovators like to know what is on the horizon to help shape it. With this future in mind, provide opportunities for upskilling and continual learning.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]

As Global Chief People Officer, Deborah Hankin takes a human-centric, design-thinking approach to ensure a superior end-to-end experience for Connatix’s people. She and her team strive every day to envision and execute an exemplary employee experience that matches how wonderful our client experience is.