December 16 , 2017

Need Innovators? Recruit Those Who See the Glass as Half Empty … and Leaking

Corporate employees can be classified into two categories. The majority of employees must be classified as “the glass is half full” people, who when they look at an existing process or product, they assume that everything is fine. However, a handful of employees can be classified as “the glass is half empty and leaking” people. These individuals are much more valuable because they are constantly looking for hidden problems and they automatically assume that, in our fast-changing world, most existing approaches will soon become obsolete. This “half-empty” group is critical because their behaviors continually drive innovation, which is essential if you want to dominate your industry by becoming a serial innovation firm.

If you doubt the need for continuous innovation, just look at the top seven most valuable firms by market cap. And you’ll find the key common factor among five of them (No. 1 Apple, No. 2 Google, No. 3 Microsoft, No.6 Amazon, and No.7 Facebook) is serial innovation.

There is little evidence that shows that you can easily develop individual employees into innovators. The most viable option for a firm that wants to become a serial innovator firm is to externally recruit a significant number of innovators. I have written extensively on how to identify and recruit innovators but I find that most firms completely fail to target and assess one of the most important “indicators of an innovator.” And that key indicator of an innovator is that they have a sense of urgency because they see “the glass as half-empty and leaking.”

The majority of employees routinely see “the glass as half-full” and as a result, they are satisfied with the status quo. In direct contrast, innovators routinely see “the glass as half empty and leaking. Those who share this “half-empty and leaking” vision assume that there are hidden problems in all existing products, processes, tools, and solutions. And because they understand the rapid pace of change, they also see all existing approaches as “soon to be obsolete.” And because they see these two needs to both identify hidden problems and to replace all existing processes with new disruptive innovative ones, they continually explore and have a sense of urgency. These are traits not shared by other employees. 

What a “Glass Half Empty and Leaking” Innovator Is

I call an employee or a recruit who has a “Glass Half Empty And Leaking” perspective a GHEAL. If you’re not familiar with the characterization of an individual as a “the glass is half empty and leaking” person, it means that an individual assumes that there are hidden problems that must be addressed in almost everything. They also assume that in a fast-changing world that all current solutions, tools, and programs will soon become obsolete.

Because they see “the glass is half empty and leaking” you might assume that these individuals are pessimistic, but the opposite is true. They are optimistic about the future because, even though they see most existing things as problematic, fortunately, they spot hidden problems early enough so that there is sufficient time to come up with solutions and innovations. While most “glass-half-full” optimists are surprised when things go wrong, a GHEAL doesn’t need a negative event to trigger their preparation for continuous improvement. You probably already know at least one GHEAL at your firm. They are easily identified because they continually ask tough questions; they mentally go through numerous what-if exercises.  They have a sense of urgency and they are constantly planning for the next step.

The Many Benefits of Hiring “Glass Half Empty and Leaking” Innovators

Most corporate recruiting leaders and hiring managers have not taken the time to recruit GHEALs because they don’t realize the many benefits that they bring to the organization. Those benefits include:

  • They find and fix hidden problems that result in continuous improvement — because they automatically assume that there are hidden current or upcoming problems in existing programs, processes, and products, they continually push for continuous improvement. They don’t need to see declining 6 Sigma and productivity data to alert them about how every existing thing needs to improve. Because they are tenacious and they see the business impact, they will push themselves and others to continually increase both efficiency and productivity.
  • They also add transformational value with innovation — most GHEALs are not satisfied with continuous improvement because in order to maintain a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world, even continually improved processes, tools, and products must eventually be replaced with new innovative approaches. Many firms including Apple, GE, and Google have found that innovators add a transformational value because their innovations produce between 5 and 300 times the value of an average employee.
  • They alert management about upcoming obsolescence — the “shelf-life” of existing solutions, processes, products, and approaches has decreased dramatically in the last decade. So despite the fact that existing products, processes, and approaches are currently working fine, they assume that their effectiveness will soon decline to the point of obsolescence. And as a result, they start looking for significantly better disruptive replacements before anyone else.
  • They are forward-looking — GHEALs realize that they operate in a VUCA environment and a business world that is constantly changing at a rapid rate. As a result, they are always looking for new innovative approaches from within and outside their industry. They are continually looking forward, and their planning for the future means fewer negative surprises and more time to prepare for future opportunities.
  • They make others around them better — “glass half empty and leaking” employees act as role models for other teammates. And they generally encourage others to also begin to look at the glass is half empty and leaking. The best also convince their managers and teammates to adopt their level of urgency.
  • They are recruiting magnets — all top performers want to work in an innovative environment, so having a cadre of GHEAL innovators is a great recruiting tool to attract other innovators and top performers. Their mere presence may also increase the retention of other employees who desire to work alongside and learn from innovators and forward-looking individuals.

Ways to Identify GHEAL Candidates 

Once applicants apply for your open job, accurately identify the few “glass is half empty and leaking” applicants among them. Every organization must arrive at their own set of characteristics that accurately identify a GHEAL/innovator employee. The best approach is to look at your current innovators/GHEALs and then to find the common indicators that can be used to identify others among your applicants. Because that takes time, in this article I have provided a list of GHEAL identification approaches that you can use as a guide to get you started.

Identifying GHEALs prior to their interview

  • Look for keywords and phrases in their resume — surprisingly GHEAL innovators seldom actually call themselves innovators in their resumes or during interviews. However, they are likely to include within their resume some phrases and words related to both “assuming that there is hidden problems” and “innovation.” Some of those “indicator keywords” may include risk-taking, collaboration, breakthroughs, exploration, disruptive solutions, new technologies and winning awards and patents, In addition, “glass half empty and leaking” applicants will likely mention how they built, reinvented, or created new approaches from scratch, rather than building on or updating existing things. Supplement your “innovation related word search” with a search for extremely advanced industry and job-related buzz words. The mention of these buzzwords indicates that they are at least aware of the bleeding edge trends, problems, and solutions.
  • Assess their LinkedIn or other similar profile — others in their LinkedIn (or similar type of product) profile will likely validate their skills related to innovation in the available skill fields of product innovation, innovation management, and innovation consulting. Also look at their recommendations for innovation related terms and leading-edge industry terminology. You can also sometimes identify innovators by the people/influencers who they follow.
  • Look at who referred them — look for cases where the candidate was referred by an employee who are themselves GHEALs, innovators or top performers. You should contact the referring employee and ask them specifically if they consider their referral to be a “glass half-full” person or a GHEAL. If you suspect that they are one, also contact their job references early on to see how their job references classify them.

Identifying GHEALs during the interview

The best way to identify people who see “the glass as half empty and leaking” is during the interview. Eventually, you need to develop your own interview assessment approach. But at least initially if you suspect you have a GHEAL applicant, consider using the following identification approaches during your interviews.

  • Ask them to identify problems in existing processes — you can assess their half-full or half empty and leaking perspective during or outside the interview by giving them an existing business process or approach that is related to their job. Give them a little time to study it, and then ask them to identify areas where there are most likely to be currently hidden weaknesses. Also, ask them to estimate the likely time before the process will become obsolete in your industry. And then to name and describe some likely innovative future replacements. Obviously, if they don’t see any major problems or the upcoming obsolescence, they are not a GHEAL.
  • Give them a complex problem and ask for an innovative solution — give them a complex problem related to their job and then after some time to think, ask them to walk you through the steps on how they would solve it (Elon Musk of Tesla uses this approach). If they leave out key steps like assuming that there are hidden problems, adding a continuous improvement component, or assuming obsolescence, the candidate should not be considered a GHEAL. In addition, if they don’t come up with an outline of a solution that you would consider disruptive, it is unlikely that they are an innovator. Glass-half-empty candidates always identify more potential problems, they provide solutions that are significantly more innovative, and they see the timeline for acting to be much shorter than other candidates.
  • Test their vision of the future — because GHEALs and innovators are future focused, who should ask likely GHEALs to describe their vision of the future, in both their job and in your industry. If they describe a disruptive future that is completely different than the current environment, you likely have a GHEAL. The best will likely also mention how in their current job that they continually set aside time to think about and plan for the future.
  • Ask them directly — another option is to ask candidates directly if they fit your definition of a GHEAL. You can do that by providing likely “glass half empty and leaking” candidates with a randomly combined list that contains both “half-empty and leaking” and “half-full” identifiers. Simply ask each candidate to select from the combined list the top three characteristics that best describe their approach to problem solving and innovation. If they select among their top characteristics factors like identifying hidden problems, continuous improvement, assuming obsolescence, having a sense of urgency and looking for disruptive solutions, you likely have a GHEAL. You can create and then refine your list of assessment criteria by first profiling your own GHEAL employees to see what characteristics they have in common.

Final Thoughts

Once you realize that no firm is exempt from the need to become a serial innovator firm, your first step should be to examine your current recruiting process. In most cases, you will quickly find that your existing broad corporate recruiting process simply cannot effectively recruit GHEALs and innovators. Rather than completely revising it, a superior solution is to develop a sub-process that specifically targets GHEALs and innovators in the important areas of the employer branding and the focus of the actual recruiting process. This targeted subprocess needs to be data-driven, faster, and more candidate-focused than the standard processes. It must also be designed for attracting currently employed GHEALs and innovators who are not actively seeking a job. The goal is to ensure that those who are not actively looking will easily be able to find and read information about your firm and how it meets each of a GHEAL’s unique attraction factors.

Once applications start coming in, you will need a process to identify GHEALs. And after they are identified, you will have to expedite the hiring process for them because top talent is often off the market within 10 days. And finally before you make an offer to a “glass is half empty” candidate, you might have to redesign the job because innovators and GHEALs expect a high degree of freedom for their continuous effort to “obsolete everything.”

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.