How to attract key innovation experts ?


R&D executives are easy to find. However, innovation experts are the key people that are really needed. Which tools can headhunters efficiently use to screen the best candidates in this domain ?

Jean-Christophe Simon
21 months ago

14 answers


It is difficult to find innovation executives because they are rare and the title itself is an oxymoron! There is a paradox at work, someone who is disruptive enough to be innovative is too disruptive to be an executive. Likewise someone with leadership/executive characteristics is too "corporate" (e.g., rule following) to be innovative. So, you are right to look for "experts".
To find innovation experts, you need to search for people who actually have innovation experience. Innovation experts are often people who have R&D roots, but they may come from marketing, market research, or strategy functions. Or they may be entrepreneurs or serial new product creators. There is no substitute for actual experience if you are seeking "experts".
However, if you want to find people who have the ability to become innovation experts, you need to look for specific skills. For example, innovation people need to feel comfortable with uncertainty and embrace risk. Innovation people are often a bit more passionate than ordinary. In large companies, these people migrate upstream to the more innovative projects out of curiosity or desire to do something more exciting or meaningful. I think these skills are needed for anyone to survive in innovation organizations (no matter the role strategy, develop, or execute). But the hardest, most unique person to find is the front end innovation expert.
Front end innovation is the first stage where vision, strategy, and ideas are created. People who thrive in front end innovation are highly intuitive on the Myers Briggs (an N). If you look at the MBTI, the INTJ can be a solid innovation expert and this is the MBTI architect/engineer. Innovation thrives on diversity of thinking so innovation is a place where a perceptive person (P) can do well and it is a place where a feeler (F) can also do well. But I have also seen on roles is tIn my experience, the I/E can go either way. If you know MBTI, you know that INTJ's are only 0.7% of the population and that P's and F's can have trouble surviving in corporate cultures which value the STJ characteristics in all of us.

Dawn Houghton
21 months ago
Dawn, what a terrific answer! The only point I would add to your comments is that the best way to find innovation experts is to: "ask around" (everyone knows who these folks are). The folks who take credit for the innovations are frequently not the innovations experts themselves. - Michael 21 months ago
Your second sentence is a big insight. Many of the influential innovation leaders I interface with have an unwritten goal of getting fired for being too innovative. - Cory 16 months ago
Innovators do - not talk. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

I like the term VALUE CREATORS. INNOVATORS can imply people that run innovation program offices. I woukd be clear to favor those that have demonstrated creation...serial entrepreneurs. The most effective way to find them is to court the VCs in person or virtually and constantly study the startups in the domain of interest.

Thomas O'Malley
21 months ago
I agree totally Tom! The vcs network themselves and are a tremendous source of knowledge about who is successful, generally why they are, and whether they would trust their knowledge, intuition and insight into problem solving to an individual or not. - Sandy 6 months ago
OK - Dr. David E. 4 months ago

It is hard and can not be done through standard candidate search kind of things from job portals. Innovation is not a title, its an attitude and a vision. Innovation people do not think linear. R&D, on the other hand, is an art of discovering the things. 
Having said that, I think people from the entrepreneurial background can be one source, that too matters how they managed their entrepreneurship. That can be a question for the interview. Next, people who work for R&D labs is also a source. But here you need to prepare for a good interview. 
Having worked in an innovation lab for few years, I can tell from my experience, it's very hard to explain headhunters to tell what I did. Sometimes what you did cannot be fit in a bracket or requirements of the specific job description. 

Hitesh Mathpal
16 months ago
Interviewing innovators - just a job slot to fill. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

Being - thank god - a very successful innovator and innovation thought leader and also having been a CEO several times, I can tell you that it's simply not easy. The best are found by example and are naturally disruptors and so what makes a great innovator, entrepreneur and leader to most corporates makes a nightmare who's a truth seeker, risk taker (however benign) and likely non conformist. Great innovators don't get innovation degrees, I'll tell you that. Innovation inventories? Utterly stupid. You know a great innovator when you see them, talk to them, see how and what they've done already. They are globally holistic people out to change the world.

Clearly understanding if you're firm has what it takes to first accept those types and then to allow them via a very open, honest, growth oriented innovation culture to succeed comes first. I know that I won't go anywhere if the CEO is not already with the board ready for cutting edge, market and customer focused innovation with bottom line impact. I also know I want to get paid bonuses commensurate with added value. That's why the best often are entreprenurs who've made it, formed their and firms, and exited.

Finally, if the person is not holistic - R&D, manufacturing, supply chain, finance, sales, design, etc..., they are simply not going to be cream of the crop innovators.

Adam Malofsky, PhD
16 months ago
true , and agree Adam - Fanish 13 months ago
Really - sounds like a jack of all trades to me. Innovators tend to be uniquely and singularily focused. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

For SME and start-up businesses I would recommend to hire independent consultants for a period. For headhunters and recruiters I would do a lot of networking and attend conferences and symposia to find innovators with entrepreneurial minds. My own experiences build a lot on personal meetings and former colleagues. I hope that my own business will continue to attend attractiveness also beyound my present network, by recommendations and that people find my expertise for example from different social networks through the internet.

Mattias Andersson
21 months ago
I agree with your points. Innovation experts are hard to find and innovation consultants can get you started. Also, if you a company needs an innovation expert the need may be short lived as it will take a lot more people to execute once the strategy and plans are in place. - Dawn 21 months ago
That is why they are innovators - not grunts. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

I brought to market several innovative products working within large and small organizations. I also helped create a transformative regional innovation centre. So.... based on these experiences, I consider myself a bit of an expert in innovation management.

Although this is only a N=1, I am most attracted to work with teams that are genuinely motivated to get things done! "Innovation Theatre", i.e. endless speeches and reports - are among the most frustrating activities for a creative person with a wealth of "pattern recognition" and ability to quickly prototype product-market fit.

Veronika Litinski
16 months ago
love the term "innovation theatre" - Dawn 16 months ago
love that term - "Innovation Theatre" as well - Adam 16 months ago
Agree the the innovation and cratife person can be dulled by things that distract them. Also like innovation theatre conceptual term. - Sandy 6 months ago
"Innovation Lab" - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

Innovators will seek challenges and to work on something greater than themselves, not because they're paid to do it, but because its enjoyable to create something new. I define innovation as any new idea that creates value. Whether that is a product, service, or method doesn't matter; if it is new and creates value, its an innovation.

True innovators will likely have many hobbies outside of "work" outside their core competency. E.G. I'm a mechanical engineer and typical Maker, but very interested in IoT, art, or other services I'm not familiar with. One innovative technique is to "combine": With the understanding that nothing new can be created, you can only combine existing things into new ideas. In Hinduism, it is believed that the act of creating brings you closer to God.

The Kirton Adaption Inventory, KAI, gives a meaningful measure of how Innovative or Adaptive a person is on a scale of 32 to 160 (mean at 96, and almost entire population is 45-145). Where 32 is more adaptive(do better) and 160 is more innovative(do different). I scored a 132 reinforcing a good fit into my current role of leading the innovation program at Rolls-Royce.

Cory Nation
16 months ago
Agreed; thanks - Dr. David E. 4 months ago

I find head hunters lack the understanding of what innovation is. As Adam says innovators are disrupters that do no necessarily appear to fit the corporate model and sometimes are perceived as a threat. Many Innovators do no always demonstrate a track record of continued success, but like a plug being out into socket all they need is the right organisation and resources to create markets worth billions. R&D personnel are generally just part of the corporate team.

The corporate innovator is generally the person that marshals the money but doesn't necessarily fully accept the risks (cautious and risk adverse) or understand the new product or service transition process to market). I would class this person as part of the innovation team - not the innovator

The most successful innovator is a natural facilitator who thrives on risk (just look at Elon Musk - he plays the market to his own rules) and an absolute belief that they will deliver their vision(s). How do you find them - well the key issues for the search algorithms would be along the lines of

  • Absolute belief in their ideas, but a broad understanding the limitations and barriers
  • Risk taker (may have gone bankrupt, In debt, poor credit history - so no fear of failure or being fired),
  • Abilities from a broad range of experience as mentioned in previous posts above (though this depends on their age),
  • Have moved from job to job (ask the reason they left) and have many posts on their CV carrying out different roles.
  • Ability to think on their feet to address complex or insurmountable problems,
  • Question everything, constantly want to make things better
  • Will work any time of the day or night to get the task completed
  • Ability to perform successfully in areas they have little prior knowledge or experience,
  • Ability to identify problems, gain the confidence of teams and get their support to implement change
  • Possibly have tried or succeeded in patenting something.
  • Good perceptions or knowledge of how markets work and who is involved

Get the right person, give them control and the right team support and the rewards potentially are great. All of the biggest and successful innovators have great corporate innovation teams behind them. FInd the plug and everything is possible

Paul D
13 months ago
Well said, and agree. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

Jean-Christophe Simon I agree with the many comments on here about innovation really coming down to delivering useful new value. I've been doing this and researching this for over 25 years now, and 'new and useful' is the simplest basic definition of innovation.

To get there though, needs more than just finding challenging thinkers. Successful innovation needs a 'system' view. A well used framework for this covers 4 components:

Outcomes - most people assume innovation only applies to products and services, but it can apply to useful new value in any domain, so it could also mean new processes, systems, structures, cultures. So you need to know what scope the role has.

People - A couple of people have mentioned psychometrics like MBTI and KAI. Those can be useful but, as many people have said, the disruptors often struggle with the corporate immune system. Again, experience and research says you need all types of people to work together effectively to deliver the value. And whoever you find, whatever their 'type', they need to have learned to flex and manage their bias.

Process - that means the 'expert' needs to recognise the value i different styles and be able to flex the process and their toolkit, facilitating across functions and styles

Context - leadership and climate have a massive impact on how people engage with innovation. It is essentially a change process, so the expert also needs to be able to engage and shift people to deliver the value. Very smart technical innovators often struggle with this.

We used to use a diagnostic questionnaire based on this to evaluate innovation projects before we started anything. It should be possible to do something simple to focus the particular need, and even to create an outline set of interview questions.

In terms of attracting good people, talk about the context, the people and the outcomes you need, and ask them how they would make it work. We love solving useful problems :)

Alan Arnett
5 months ago
I prefer Theory X and Y. - Dr. David E. 5 months ago

The most important aspect about innovation is culture. If I were searching for an innovation "expert" for a company, I would make sure I understood the company culture and processes and then ask them two key questions:

"Do you want an innovation expert that will complement or disrupt your culture?"
"Do you want innovations that play to your companies strengths or shore up your weaknesses?"

Innovation only works when core company disciplines (Operations, Marketing and Innovation) are all working closely together, so the person who can lead innovation while bridging gaps between ops and marketing, plus be a good cultural fit should be a good person to hire.

Tim Rivera
3 months ago

Experts are mostly the individuals, which are perceived as experts by their peers. Headhunters can investigate, which individuals are perceived as experts. The mostly named individuals should be on the to of the list for the headhunter.

Patrick Henz
2 months ago

Usually innovation makes a profit and helps the company grow revenue, although it can also add value in other ways, such as being responsible for improving the appeal of other products, the brand, or opening up a new customer market.

Er Jangyadutta D
2 months ago

Attract to what? True innovators are not really so attractable to rigid structures like the sclerosed companies who need and want them os it is an uphill battle. I think of innovators similarly to "leaders" and that is a fluid situation. Someone might be innovative in nature but may only have specific contexts that truly engage their innovative side. One way to attract innovators is to present them with type of challenge that engages their creativity. Nothing brings out innovation like a challenge that says something can't be done.

Anthony Jaccarino
2 months ago

Great Article. Thanks for sharing info.

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bomma shailesh
2 months ago
Through innovative ideas if experts, company earn benefit to become viable and considered as a success. - Er Jangyadutta 2 months ago

Have some input?