What Are You Doing To Hire Idea People? Probably Nothing!

Innovation = Ideas + Collaboration + Execution

As a result of the dramatic business successes of firms like Google, Apple, and Facebook, almost everyone has become aware of the tremendous economic value that comes from continuous corporate innovation. But unfortunately executives at most firms have failed to realize that they can dramatically increase their corporate innovation rate by simply focusing on hiring and retaining more “idea people.”

Ideas Start the Innovation Process

Increasing corporate innovation starts with fully understanding that there are three steps or phases in the innovation process. These three steps include:

Step 1 – Idea generation; innovation starts with an idea from an employee.

Step 2 – Collaboration; the raw idea is shared, vetted, and improved and a shared ownership is developed through collaboration with other employees.

Step 3 – Execution; the improved idea is then turned into an actual product, service, or process using the tools of the corporate execution process.

Because idea generation is required to begin the entire innovation process, it is the most important step of the three. However, even though it is the catalyst for the entire innovation process, it is the least studied and the poorest resourced of the three steps.


The remaining two steps are better understood and developed. We know that firms can successfully improve step 2, collaboration by increasing the number of physical “serendipitous interactions” between employees, usually as a result of enhancing office design and the type of food and fun features that are common at Google and Facebook. Step 3, execution, while complex, may be the easiest step because almost all corporations are full of “process people” who excel at execution.


Unfortunately, There Are Few “Beginning-to-end” Innovation Employees

Obviously producing innovative products would be a lot easier if a single employee could successfully perform all three steps in the innovation process by themselves. But it turns out that some idea people are lousy at execution (and vice versa), while other idea people have many pie-in-the-sky ideas that need to be tempered through collaboration with others.

Unfortunately, some executives have yet to realize that each innovation step involves completely separate and distinct skills that are rarely shared by a single individual. As a result, you need specialists in each step. And because the first step is required before the other two can even begin, let’s now shift our focus toward “idea generation” and how talent management can increase the number of idea-generating employees.

Ideas Come From “Idea Generators”

There are few exceptions to the rule that “ideas come from people.” Many employees come up with an occasional idea but most firms have a small cadre of employees who seem to almost continually generate quality ideas (take a minute and I’ll bet you can name several in your own business unit). Historically these continuous idea generators were known as “idea men” (thankfully the name has evolved into “idea people”) or even “idea monkeys” but I prefer to call these employees “idea generators.” These “idea generators” are an elite group which might comprise only 10 percent of your workforce.

Idea Generators See Things Differently

There is little formal corporate research on why certain employees generate so many ideas but one of the primary causes is that these people simply have a “the glass is half full” perspective, which causes them to see the need and the possibility of dramatic improvement in almost everything. They see issues with most existing efforts and they also view even the most successful products and processes as items that will soon become obsolete. They also see new opportunities everywhere, and they somehow find the time to think and reflect about these new possibilities. They differ significantly from the more common quality control people in that they generate ideas with the goal of double-digit change.

Although many employees occasionally generate ideas, these individuals do it continuously without being asked. Although these idea generators may literally be the highest “value added” employees, most organizations have no formal process for hiring new ones or for identifying and nurturing the ones that your firm already has.

How to Hire “Idea Generators”

Obviously corporations need a mix of employees who generate ideas, vet and improve ideas, and who can execute ideas. However, among the three types of employees, the greatest shortage, as well as the highest value comes from increasing the number of “idea generators.” The best way to increase the number of idea generators quickly is by hiring them into positions where ideas are needed most. Because I have not encountered anyone else in talent management who focuses on recruiting these “idea generators,” I will provide you with some hiring tips based on my own experience and research.


  • What does an idea generator look like? – many in recruiting would suggest that you should look for: “creative” individuals with a certain set of competencies or individuals who have earned creative degrees or those who have held creative or design-oriented job titles or those who have worked at noted creative firms, but I would not recommend any of these four approaches. The best way to identify idea generators is by finding their ideas and assessing their quality and whether there is a continuous flow. Be careful of indirect approaches and instead focus on individuals who have lots of ideas. Also, before you reject a potential prospect because of their education, remember that idea generators are likely to have been frustrated in college, so avoid demanding great grades, a degree in the “right field,” or maybe even a degree at all. Many idea generators have taken a nontraditional path (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg).
  • Identifying prospects to recruit — the best way to identify recruiting prospects with lots of ideas is to rely on your employee referral program. The odds are that your top-performing employees and your own idea people will already know them, so your ERP program merely needs to make it clear to your employees that they are a primary recruiting target. My second recommended approach is to look for great ideas and then identify the individual who came up with them. Start by encouraging your employees, managers, and recruiters as part of their normal benchmarking and learning effort to search for “great ideas” on social media and the Internet. You might find these ideas online in blogs and articles and on Internet sites like discussion forums, Quora, Slideshare, picture sites, as well as in talent communities. Other options for finding idea generators include holding contests, your own boomerang rehires, interns, posting your problems online, from speakers at professional events, and even from your own customer’s comments and criticisms.
  • Convincing idea generators to apply to your firm — most firms do not have an employer brand in innovation that is as powerful as Apple, Google, P&G, or 3M. So for many firms, the next best option for convincing prospects to apply to your firm is to provide your recruiters and managers with an array of stories, best practices, and examples that illustrate how your firm loves ideas and celebrates idea generators. Work with your own idea generators to identify the best examples, and then post them on your website, on your employee referral page, and provide your recruiters and hiring managers with “sell sheets” for use in convincing prospects. Short videos and testimonials on idea generation should also be added to your recruiting sales mix.
  • Screening resumes to identify idea generators — the best way to identify idea generating candidates from among all applicants is to encourage your employees to highlight a candidate’s idea-generating capabilities in the narrative component of their employee referral recommendation. Relying on applicant resumes or LinkedIn profiles to identify idea generators is problematic because few in the corporate world have the phrase “idea generator” in their titles, job descriptions, or college major. You should of course at least try to catch them by adding “idea-related words” in your ATS keyword list for resume searches (i.e. idea, innovation, brainchild, brainstorm, conception, hunch, hypothesis, inspiration, intuition, intuitive, thought, and solution). Also consider including wording in your job posting descriptions that announces that you are seeking idea people and that you encourage all applicants to highlight their idea-generating capabilities in their application cover letter. You should also train your recruiters to better identify “idea generators” by using sample resumes and letting them practice identifying idea generation indicators until they get it right.
  • Assessment during the initial screening call – idea people are actually pretty easy to identify in a conversation, provided that you give them an opportunity to express their ideas. Start by trying to identify them during the initial screening call. Require your recruiters who make the initial screening call to ask candidates specifically if they consider themselves to be “an idea person” and if so, to then ask them to reveal examples of their past or current ideas. The best candidates will likely have already done their research on your company and product, so soliciting ideas from them is not usually difficult.
  • Assessments during the interview process – unfortunately, few corporate interview processes contain a formal component designed to elicit ideas from candidates. In fact, unless you use open-ended questions that specifically request new ideas, the rigid structure of most corporate interview processes actually discourage candidates from expressing ideas. So if you are really serious about hiring idea generators, begin your initial interview by explaining to each candidate that you are specifically looking for idea people and that interviewees are encouraged to present their ideas throughout the interview process. You should next during an interview provide each top candidate with one of the real problems (or opportunities) that a new hire will be facing if they get the job and ask them for their ideas for solving it. Train your interviewers so that they actively solicit ideas and that they listen rather than react to each one. Incidentally, you may also have to warn your interviewers and hiring managers in advance to be prepared to be startled. This is because sometimes idea generators can come across as a bit arrogant, because they see a lot of problems that they view to be relatively easy to solve. Obviously any ideas generated during an interview should be recorded and shared, so that you get added value, even if you don’t end up hiring this candidate. Some firms purposely interview candidates from competitor firms, at least partially to capture their ideas, current practices, and future plans.
  • Improve the candidate experience – be aware that because idea generators are in high demand, a bad candidate experience will likely cause them to drop out of the hiring process almost immediately. Many idea generators will judge the innovativeness of your recruiting process as an indication of your company’s actual level of innovation. So make a concerted effort to visibly add innovative features and the search for new ideas throughout the recruiting process.
  • Closing the deal – because idea generators often have multiple offers, if you expect to win out over their other offers, you will need to first identify and then to meet each one of their “job acceptance criteria.” You can also increase the odds of getting a “yes” by adding one or more of your own idea-generating employees to the interview list. You might find that a call from the CEO to the candidate can also be a powerful selling tool. And because idea generators expect their ideas to be listened to and implemented by management, be sure to sell your finalists on the fact that your organization not only loves new ideas but that it also has formal mechanisms for listening to and successfully implementing those ideas. And finally, remember that the primary motivator of “idea generators” is an expanded opportunity to think, develop, and then share ideas with decision-makers. In order to maximize those opportunities, expect to have to “customize” the existing job around their interests and strengths.

Next You Have to Retain “Idea Generators”

Once you hire an idea generator, you need to immediately begin “reinforcing the sale” by highlighting the different ways that they can have their ideas “listened to” during the onboarding process.

Immediately assigning them a mentor employee who has been successful at idea generation is also generally a wise move. Idea generators should be prioritized for retention purposes. Because retention problems can be identified and resolved by their manager, their immediate manager needs to be provided with a retention toolkit. This toolkit should cover the best practices and approaches that their manager can use to identify the new hire’s key motivators/turnoffs and how to “best manage” idea generators. Individual managers should be encouraged to hold one-on-one feedback meetings with them at least every six months. These meetings should include important topics like: Why do you stay?, What frustrates you and might cause you to consider leaving?, and “Where would they like to be in one and two years?”


You can also increase retention rates by formally measuring, recognizing, and rewarding successful idea generation. However, be aware that some idea generators will prefer not to be promoted into managerial positions, while others will have little interest in being involved in the execution step of the innovation process.


Nurturing Idea Generation Within Your Organization


Smart executives will also develop processes for “pulling” more ideas out of every employee but especially idea generators. Google and Facebook are the benchmark firms when it comes to successfully “pulling ideas” out of their employees. Some of their approaches that can be borrowed include providing idea generators: with free time (i.e. 20 percent time), with decompression chambers, with quiet spaces to reflect, by holding Hackathons, with group brainstorming sessions, and by providing numerous whiteboards and wikis for posting and sharing new ideas.


Some firms increase the number of ideas by sanctioning “no people” — employees who vocally and publicly criticize and discourage all new ideas. Creating a corporate-wide list of your idea-generator employees can make it easier for central HR to ensure that they are adequately moved, trained, rewarded, and recognized.


Generating ideas that successfully make it through the final two steps to become workable innovations also need to be an important criterion in performance metrics, performance appraisal, bonus formulas, and promotion criteria for all managers and employees. However, none of these idea pulling features will work unless the corporate culture visibly celebrates and takes quick action on new ideas. Some might argue that all of these efforts might result in having “too many ideas,” but if your firm has an innovation culture or it operates in a VUCA environment, that would be a nice problem to have.


Idea Generators and Collaborators Are Needed Everywhere


Unless you want different parts of the organization to move at different speeds and to innovate at different rates, you must have idea generators in every business function and not just in product development. Research at Google has also shown that the second step of the innovation process, collaboration, can be further enhanced if idea generators frequently interact not just with their own team members but also with many other diverse functions, including overhead functions.


Final Thoughts


Being innovative allows your firm to be first with new products and features, which generally carries the business benefits of free first-mover publicity, capturing significant market share and higher profit margins. However, this economic value can’t be obtained without a surplus of idea generators. Unfortunately, many leaders have put little thought and fewer resources into idea generation, even though they literally kick start the entire innovation process. Most corporate leaders don’t even know how many idea generators they have, no less who they are. Fortunately, once executives realize the critical role and the tremendous economic value added by these idea generators, there is little delay in their taking action to focus on these idea generators.


Once enlightened, they quickly call talent management and demand effective processes for recruiting, retaining, and nurturing these valuable corporate assets. Are you ready to respond to that call?

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.

Check Also

The “No Application Required” Recruiting Strategy (Providing employed top talent with “job search deniability”)

Top employees are reluctant to apply for external jobs because it makes them appear disloyal. …