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Hiring for Innovation? Where do people “who have done it before” best fit in?

Posted on Sunday, Nov 25th 2018

By Guest Author Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

In her new book, Everybody Wants to Love Their Job: Rebuilding Trust and Culture, Marylene Delbourg-Delphis draws from her extensive experience as a serial CEO, executive consultant, and board member to assesses the cons and pros of hiring people who “have done it before.”

Clichés have an advantage: they are self-explanatory. But the main drawback of these ready-made phrases is that nobody questions their meaning any longer.

Hiring people who have done it before can lead to two very different outcomes depending on the context you place them in. They can be innovation crushers, or oppositely, innovation springboards.

Innovation crushers…

In Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, Boris Groysberg shows that past success doesn’t predict future performance. Analyzing the case of a large data set of prominent analysts on Wall Street, he showed that most did poorly in the year after they left one company for another, and were not back up to their original level until years later, if ever. The reason for this phenomenon is pretty simple: while we hire people individually for their skill sets, their performance is not entirely dependent on their personal abilities, but rather on the company’s environment. As a result, when we poach a star, we can’t expect her to bring the firm-specific resources that supported her prior achievements.

As reassuring as it may be to attract people who have done it before, in reality, we end up hiring skills without the context in which they shone. So how can we reasonably assume that past experience will be as valuable as we’re given to believe? In truth, there’s no guarantee that stars can automatically repeat their winning streak in a new workplace.

  1. They may do worse: If, out of context, they primarily stick to what has turned into formulaic knowledge, their value can only whittle over time. Worse still, they’re likely to hop from company to company, spreading routine behaviors that Chris Argyris labeled “skilled incompetence” in a landmark article for the Harvard Business Review.
  2. They may not do as well, let alone better: They’re supposed to do the same thing that made them appealing, but if we don’t provide the context that enabled them to give the best of what they can be do, what’s the point? A single person rarely triggers innovation —even less a bunch of people “who have done it before,” because it’s not one team member, but many whose potential is decontextualized. That’s how many corporations with seasoned individuals happen to be so stagnant.

Innovation springboards in the innovation engineering pool

People who have done it before can do it again if the organization that hires them re-contextualize their talent to maintain their relevance. In other words, they can be valuable if they are surrounded with imaginative peers who have completely different experience or skills – in other words, if they become members of a diverse innovation engineering pool that can leverage a past experience in a way that they, by themselves, probably wouldn’t be able to. Then stars can shine again:

  1. As devil’s advocates: The purpose of having devil’s advocates isn’t for them to be systematic naysayers whose goal is to put the kibosh on new ideas, nor are they some form of internal concern trolls pitting people against one another to maintain the status quo. Their role is to identify flaws and defective rationales, prevent the organization from reinventing the wheel because of ignorance, and instead, operate as whips for a stronger, better, and deeper work. In many cases, they can be precious guides for premortem analysis designed to increase the chances of the success of a project by preparing for and addressing in advance risks and shortcomings.
  2. As mentors and scouters for incremental innovation – and possibly as innovators themselves: In a diverse, stimulating environment, the same talents who could be trapped in the past are capable of identifying the details/ideas that make a difference and might otherwise go unheeded. Multiple studies, especially David Galenson’s, mentioned in Adam Grant’s Originals, dismantle the assumption that people have to be inventors before the age of 30. There are two radically different styles of innovation, conceptual and experimental.
  • Conceptual innovators tend to be young.
  • Experimental innovators tend to be creative throughout their lives and even more productive later in life. Grant also indicates that “when companies run suggestion boxes, there is evidence that older employees tend to submit more ideas and of higher quality.”

In other words, experienced hires do have the potential to be “experimental innovators,” and encourage or spur important incremental innovations when their creativity is rekindled by a stimulating environment. Incremental innovation is nowhere near as praised as a breakthrough and radical innovation, yet it’s the most frequent type of innovation, and its strong rewards are worth advocating, as again postulated by Marcel Corstjens in a recent HBR article.


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