Implementing Innovations Requires a “Future-Acting” Workforce

If your firm competes against serial innovation and top-market-cap firms like Amazon, Apple, and Google, you already know that you must match their “speed of innovation.” But you might not realize that to reach that speed, you also need “a future-acting workforce” in order to implement the new ideas generated by your innovative employees.

Why Increasing Your Speed of Innovation Requires Future-Acting Employees

The “speed of innovation” is the average number of months before current industry products and processes become obsolete as a result of rapid innovation. Obviously, every executive already knows that the speed of innovation is continually decreasing. So, to me, it’s time for all executives and managers to realize that at almost every firm, the speed that they implement innovations may be the single most important determinant of future business success. And that means that firms must track the industry’s speed of innovation and then take proactive actions to make sure that their firm exceeds the average.

In order to reach that goal, most executives already know that they need to successfully attract and retain innovators. But, unfortunately, few realize that having dozens of innovators is only a first step. The ideas of these employees will never be quickly implemented unless a majority of your workforce is “future-acting.” If you not familiar with the term, future-acting, I define it as:

A future-acting employee is someone that is future-focused because they continually make themselves and others aware of upcoming problems and opportunities. They are also simultaneously future-acting because they continually take proactive actions to prepare for future events.

Why Future-Acting Employees Are So Critical

Traditionally, most recruiting has been focused on hiring productive employees who have a laser focus on doing the current job. But now that the importance of serial innovation has come to the forefront, it’s time for that current focus to change. There should be a major focus on hiring innovators. However, if you want your ideas to be implemented quickly, you will also need a significant portion of your workforce to be what I call “future-acting.” This means that these employees don’t create roadblocks and they facilitate the rapid implementation of innovative ideas.

Having future-acting employees is critical because rapid implementation requires a supporting workforce that understands the need for and the value of continually implementing innovations. It’s much like a chain which is only as strong as its weakest link. If you have a large group of employees who are overly focused on today, it is highly likely that they will resist change and slow or even stop the implementation of innovative ideas.

So that means that if implementation is the goal, recruiting and retention must focus on attracting and keeping employees that are future-acting. And after hiring, of course, HR must continue to develop these individuals to envision the future faster and more accurately. And that they also know the roadblocks to innovation that they must avoid to facilitate changing “at the speed of innovation.”

How Do You Identify a Future-Acting Candidate or Employee?

Once you decide to focus on expanding your cadre of future-acting employees, you will need to discover the characteristics that can be used to identify them. The top 10 identifying characteristics that can be found in resumes, during interviews, and often during employee assessment include:

  • They act to prepare for the future— historically many have used the phrases forward-leaning or “a bias toward action” to describe a future-focused employee. But, unfortunately, having the right attitude or leaning is simply not enough. A forward-acting employee must have a track record of taking action that results in actual change occurring before the competitive speed of innovation demands it. Simply dreaming about the future is insufficient. Instead, action is also required.
  • They assume continuous obsolescence— a forward-acting employee or manager starts with the assumption that everything that we do today will likely be obsolete within 18 months. They demonstrate that expectation of obsolescence perspective by continuously espousing the need to update existing processes, programs, and products. The most accurate phrase that I use to describe them are individuals who “see the glass half-empty and leaking,”
  • They are rapid self-directed learners— you can’t see the future if you aren’t continually learning about emerging problems, solutions, and technologies. Data from Google found that collaboration between non-team members directly increases innovation, but only if all of the collaborating parties are on the leading-edge of knowledge. The new reality is that you now need rapid learning not just at the top, but at all levels of the organization. And advanced learning must be uniform across everyone on a team involved in implementing innovation. Simply put, future-acting candidates and employees can best be identified because they learn at the speed of innovation.
  • They forecast the future— rather than just thinking about the future, these individuals make and then reveal their projections of future problems and opportunities. And after they project any future shift, they develop and share a written plan covering how to prepare for it.
  • They track emerging technologies— because technology is such a key driver in leading-edge innovation across all business functions. These future-acting individuals are constantly aware of both the emerging technologies and their possible applications. They are first among their team to proactively identify the areas within their function that will soon be challenged by emerging technologies.
  • They also have an external focus— because every firm operates in a highly competitive environment. These employees are constantly benchmarking the current and planned innovation practices that occur externally both in your own and in parallel industries.
  • They act globally— in addition to having a global perspective, future-acting individuals have a track record of developing or facilitating innovations that can be applied around the globe. As a result, innovations are scalable and adaptable to all of the countries and geographic regions where your firm does business. Future-acting employees obviously must also learn and share globally.
  • Managers set aside resources for innovation— the best managers realize that you can’t innovate in the future unless you have set aside resources for the development and implementation of those innovations. So future-acting managers set-aside at least 10 percent of their time and budget resources for developing innovations within their functional area.
  • They are developing future skills in addition to the skill set required for their current job. Future-acting employees and managers are continually identifying and slowly developing what I call “future skills” … the skills that will be essential for the growth and innovation at your firm 12 to 18 months down the road.

The Best Sources for Recruiting Future-Acting Candidates

Even if you currently have a great deal of future-acting employees, organic growth at your firm will require you to hire even more. Some of the best approaches for finding these individuals include:

  • Referrals from future-acting employees — the best recruiting source by far is proactive referrals from your own future-acting employees. Start by asking them to continually seek out individuals who plan for the future. Then require them to assess the degree that a prospect is future-acting and then allow these employees to make referrals even if there is no currently open position. Suggest to your best employees that they consider their mentees, former co-workers, and members of their professional network.
  • Rehire former employees who were future-acting— targeted boomerang rehiring is always a top source. Focus on future-acting employees or interns that left your firm. Maintain a relationship with them and then ask them to return eventually. If they can’t return, ask them to refer other individuals that they find to be future-acting.
  • Recruit at future-focused conferences— the best firms allow employees to attend physical or virtual conferences that cover the future. Ideally, send a recruiter but also consider asking your own employees that attend. Have them look out for those that speak, comment, or ask great future-action oriented questions.
  • Ask future-acting new-hires to identify them— make it a standard part of onboarding that when you hire an individual who appears to be future-acting, ask them specifically to identify other future-acting individuals at their last or past firms. Offer them a reward if one of their recommendations is eventually hired.
  • Revisit silver medalists— look through a list of future-acting past candidates who rejected you or who came close to getting hired. Just because one manager didn’t want them initially, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to place them with other managers that may be willing to tolerate a perceived minor shortcoming in return for increased innovation.
  • Assessing future-action during interviews— because the best candidates will already be focused on the future, simply ask top candidates to make projections covering the needed changes that firms like yours will have to make. Ask similar questions related to projected upcoming technologies and how they should be applied. And finally, consider asking them to outline their plan covering the steps that they would use to find upcoming obsolescence areas and roadblocks to innovation within their job and team.

Final Thoughts

Most firms justifiably focus on hiring, retaining, and developing individual innovators.

But, unfortunately, relying on a few individuals or departments to come up with innovations creates a huge problem when it comes to implementation. The foundation premise here is that the innovation chain, because of its interconnectedness, is only as strong as its weakest link, which is almost always implementation. So, if you want your innovations to be implemented at “the speed of innovation,” every part of the innovation chain must be future-acting. Because if other functional areas like finance, HR, or customer service can’t also change at the speed of innovation, the whole organization will suffer.

This broader expectation of being future-acting also forces managers in all traditionally lagging functions to hire and retain more employees who are future-acting to increase your firm’s overall speed of innovation. As a result, your entire workforce needs to accept the responsibility for continually identifying and preparing for the firm’s volatile future. Under this approach, every employee throughout the organization must spend at least a portion of his or her time focusing on the future. So, the key required strategic change is to broaden your focus away from just having innovators to a broader one that requires a majority of the team to be future-acting.


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please follow me on LinkedIn.


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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.

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