How to avoid “innovation impostors”

Companies today want innovators — people who will bring the newest, shiniest ideas.

Recruiters flock to innovation summits and build innovation labs.

LinkedIn titles read “Innovator in Chief,” “Maker & Innovator,” “Innovator in Residence.”

Resumes look like recipe books — six-week innovation workshop + certificate in creativity and innovation + blog post titled “How to break the status quo.”

Here’s the problem: Talent officers like me interview lots of candidates who say they bring new ideas and enact positive change. Do they really?

After a hire’s been made, it’s so disappointing when “innovative thinking” reveals itself to be a practiced affectation, a turn of phrase used as a means to landing the job.

Talent officers like me interview lots of candidates who say they bring new ideas and enact positive change. Do they really?

I’ve found that these “innovation impostors” may be creative — but in the end, they fail because they can’t convince others to make change happen. “They just weren’t ready for my ideas,” innovation impostors often say.

But that’s how a true innovator stands out: She fights for change, and she is equally committed to the collective success of the team and organization. She has a million great ideas, and she’s willing to put in the hard and unsexy work to push things forward.

And yes, she’s hard to find. So when I’m looking for an innovator, here’s what I keep in mind.

An innovator is a team player.

Here’s a story: When my son was given a school assignment to invent a superhero, he came up with a pretty innovative idea.

Instead of a hero with typical superpowers, he thought: What if a superhero’s “power” is actually a limitation used for good? Sushi Girl: A girl whose touch turns anything into sushi, feeds millions!

His idea was a hit. Other kids in his class began to riff on it themselves — The Big Sleep: His contagious yawning puts evil to bed! Floss Boss: Dental floss fights off more than just cavities!

But instead of fanning the flames of his success, my son discouraged others from building on his idea (it was his !), and he was willing to kill it when it grew beyond him.

There’s a lesson here: Getting new ideas to take root requires a lack of ego, and strong skills in facilitation and teamwork.

If an innovator doesn’t do the hard work of getting support, energy, and momentum from others — that is, getting people to join the movement — the movement dies before it gets started.

When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask pointed questions to determine if a self-proclaimed innovator can radically collaborate — with a team, with stakeholders, with the organization as a whole — to push an idea forward.

An innovator is a sense-maker.

In my experience, an innovator is adept at distilling her idea down into its core components, so that anyone can understand it, fall in love with it, and jump on board.

“Ideas people” sometimes hide behind complexity. The real trick is to make the unclear clear. That’s the kind of innovator who is really valuable.

I’ll ask a candidate to teach me something new in under 4 minutes. It doesn’t matter what she chooses to teach me: It matters how she brings me along into her thought process, and how she makes the lesson understandable, even within a subject I know nothing about.

An innovator shows grit.

There will be times when the big idea doesn’t work. A real innovator doesn’t get discouraged by this. I ask candidates how they stay motivated when they’ve tried to solve a problem again and again and again — when it’s the seventieth time they’ve tried and it still hasn’t happened.

Let me be quite clear: This isn’t about hammering a single bad idea into the ground. Innovators are persistent but know when to pivot, try something new, or shift the idea so that it might be successful.

As Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed, I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

An innovator’s not a jerk.

A lot of famous innovators are also famously polarizing. But in most organizations, that simply doesn’t work. I look for provocateurs who inspire others without shutting them down — people with authenticity, humility, honesty, and humanity.

These are the trickiest qualities to look for, because they’re almost intangible: It may sound hokey, but it’s something you feel — a sense you get when you’re around a person — that gives this away.

Of course, interrogate your biases, and don’t let them get the better of you. But remember: Jerky people might appear brilliant, but 9 times out of 10, they aren’t the innovators you want.

An innovator is worth waiting for.

It’s easy for all of us to fall for an innovation impostor. Those candidates sound so alluring, almost irresistible. But think like an art dealer who patiently investigates for forgery before a potential buy: Finding true innovators takes time, but is absolutely critical to success — of the candidate, the hiring team, and the entire organization.


Deborah Hankin currently serves as Vice President of Talent at SYPartners. Over the past decade, Deborah has hired top talent—and found true innovators—at all levels in design and marketing industries.