Attracting Talent to Innovation Projects

By Justin Zack and Tristan Kromer

No matter what you put out into the world, you get something similar back. It’s the law of attraction. You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar (unless they are fruit flies, which prefer vinegar — but that’s another post). So how do you go about attracting talent — specifically the right talent — to an innovation project?

 

Attracting talent is an important element of your innovation project.
You draw in what you put out. To begin attracting talent for your next innovation project, consider what you will put out to the organization for your call to innovation. Be clear about why you are looking to innovate. When you lack clarity, you confuse people and possibly even attract the wrong people.

Attracting Talent 101: Know what you’re looking for

It’s basic marketing: Know your audience. You need to understand who you are looking to attract. Do you need a front-end or back-end engineer? An ideas person or an executor? Someone to keep you grounded in customer obsession or someone to make you reach for the stars?

There’s no right answer.

But there are four areas to consider when identifying the right people to work on your innovation project.

They share an interest in the problem

Consider your design objective and problem space. Who are you innovating for? What interests do they have?

Find people in your organization that have similar or related interests to the problem space. Doing so will bring a level of empathy, depth, and insight into your project. Click To Tweet

 

Innovation team members need to be able to empathize with each others' approach.
Look for people who care deeply about that type of customer and want to help them. Are there people in your organization who have run small businesses? Or care a lot about small retailers because their parents run one of those businesses? Who gets fascinated with the checkout experience at their local convenience store? Who are the people in your organization that might become passionate about the experience you are looking to change?

They help you form a complete team

Think about the needs of your project. What are the goals, and what skill sets would be most valuable to help you solve for those goals? You don’t just need the mythical unicorn designer who can also write code.

Attracting talent doesn't mean every member has to be a mythical unicorn that can do all the jobs.

Identify the complete team with the skill sets needed to get around the Build-Measure-Learn loop quickly. At a minimum you are likely going to need a designer, an engineer, and a business person. But if you’re building a service, you won’t need an engineer. If you’re doing B2B, a sales person will be critical, and you won’t need a user-experience designer as much as you’ll need a graphic designer who is good with Powerpoint. If you are missing a key skill or role, you are going to get stuck.

They have the right mindset

Who are the people in your organization that have curious hobbies? Look for employees that have side hustles or spend their energy going really deep into subjects that have nothing to do with their day job.

Recruit team members who have hobbies that reveal their curious nature.

These people are not always forthcoming with their curiosity. Not everyone broadcasts that they have a hidden talent for puzzles or a weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. You have to pay close attention to your team and generally be willing to get to know folks on a personal level. Team-building exercises like puzzle rooms and randomized lunch meetings throughout your organization can help bring out the secret skill sets, as well as being great for morale.

Look for people that exhibit lean thinking or tend to be contrarians. You want team members that approach problems from a variety of angles and beliefs. Think about the rebels and rule breakers. Attracting talent with the right mindset will help you challenge norms and patterns in your innovation space.

They are diverse

It’s ideal to seek a diverse set of people to help you innovate. As Frans Johansson says in The Medici Effect, diversity drives innovation. Johansson urges us to break down silos and step into a place where different fields, disciplines, departments, and cultures converge to create new, remarkable breakthroughs.

Look across your organization and seek to recruit unlikely combinations. Call Brenda from accounting and Pat from engineering and Johan from the administrative staff.

Recruiting a diverse team helps you see many sides to your innovation project.

Of course it’s important not to force-fit someone into a role they are not going to like. Your front-end graphic designer is going to be very unhappy assigned full time to the API team. But even getting that designer viewpoint on how the API documentation is displayed and formatted can be a helpful perspective that will add to the overall user experience, and hence the value of the product to users.

Attracting Talent 102: Getting the right people

Now that you have spent time thinking about who you are looking for, you can shift to attracting them to your project. It’s time to pull from the customer-centric marketing playbook.

Understand your “customer”

You don’t necessarily need to craft a customer persona or empathy map, but thinking in those terms will help you.

What are people looking to achieve professionally? Are they looking to build skills, get exposure, or just learn something new? Consider their pains. They likely have a full-time position with deliverables and time pressure to get work done. It may be hard for them to step away from the day-to-day.

Spend time making note of your target team-member’s profile and then begin thinking about how that will align with your project. Identify the intersections and then craft your value proposition.

Craft your value prop

Remember that you are attracting talent to your project, and the best way to get there is to present an offer that intersects with your target teammate’s goals.

What is the value in participating in your project from an employee perspective? Is innovation rewarded in your company? Are there monetary rewards? Is the purpose and vision of the project sufficient?

Attracting talent to your team may involve offering them the kinds of reward they are interested in.

You can use the following template to help you craft your project value statement:

We want to solve <problem> for <target customer>

We are looking for <type of people you want> who want to create <benefit you hope the project will deliver>

And don’t forget to test your value proposition for comprehension!

Also, have a cool project name. People like cool project names. Would you rather join the “Search Project” or “Project: The Eye of Sauron”?

Make your compelling offer

Include any social proof of senior level support

Make sure you have the support of leadership and that their vested interest is made known. People are much more likely to sign up when they see the resources that the company is putting behind it. This makes it safe for individuals at a team level to ask their direct management for the time to participate.

Make it fun

If you want some buzz, go the extra mile and make your projects fun. Get creative. Bring the energy and celebrate the people that volunteer their time to help with innovation.

Make sure it doesn’t sound like just “extra work”

You don’t need to over-engineer your innovation, that’s part of what makes it exciting. But you do need to keep things fresh. You don’t want your team to see this as more work disguised as innovation. Be clear about how this is separate from current priorities and what the impact will be for the company as a whole. This should not just be someone’s attempt to slip in a lower priority pet project.

Get the word out

Attracting talent is an art. It can take some intentional networking to find the right people for your team. Here are several avenues that can help you to spread the word.

Spend time at the water cooler

Don’t underestimate the power of a grassroots viral campaign. Talk to people at the water cooler and tell them what you are looking for and how they can get on board. Pitch your value statement. Ask them if they know anyone that might be interested or fit the bill for your project. We’ve seen entire project teams get built just through viral excitement.

Use existing social networks

If this isn’t your company’s first rodeo, leverage prior innovation project participants to recruit for you. Who are your sneezers? A sneezer, as defined in Seth Godin’s book Unleashing the Ideavirus, is a person who is more likely to tell their friends about a great new idea. That doesn’t sound very appealing during a pandemic, but you want great ideas to go viral. Which, unfortunately, also doesn’t sound very appealing during a pandemic. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Look for the people who were invested in prior successful innovation efforts and ask them to help recruit.

Build virality in your message

Invoke your inner copywriter and appeal to the importance of the effort. “This project is credible because it’s important to the CEO. He wrote about it in the last company address.”

Appeal to the emotion of your recruits. Think back to your understanding of the customer. Given their goals, what’s the root emotion you think they will get when they are done. For example, they might feel “important” after having participated in this strategic project.

Lastly you can appeal to their logic by calling attention to the facts and statistics that support the investment in the project.

Leverage your communication team

Once you’ve got the value proposition of your project, go get a second set of eyes to get some feedback. If you’re not a great copywriter, contact your PR team to help you craft an internal press release or help with building that viral campaign messaging.

Take advantage of existing communication channels

Ask if you can pitch during your company or business unit’s all-hands meeting. Connect with department leads and ask to join their weekly team meeting to share the project and ask for volunteers.

Ask senior management to promote the event

Any support at the company level that you can demonstrate will help drive interest. Ask leaders to give mention to the project in their staff meeting or in any company email updates. Leverage any senior stakeholders to drive influence in their circles.

Senior leaders are busy, so make sure you arm them with the key talking points of your value proposition. Make it as easy as possible for them to talk about it and share it. Drafting an email for them is an easy way to do this.

Host your own (small) event to build buzz

Host an informal zoom to tell people about the project and let folks learn more. People always have questions. Create space where they can come and ask them. Judging by the questions people ask, you will quickly learn who is passionate about your project and who just came for the (virtual) pizza.

Other ideas to get the word out

  • Use signage to post around the office.
  • Use your favorite email marketing platform to drive sign-ups.
  • Make your zoom background the project name with a simple “Wanna join?” in the image.
  • Grab some real estate on the company wiki or bulletin board

Go external if needed

You don’t want a whole team of outsourcers (we’ve seen those work and we’ve seen those fail), but if you have a skill gap you just can’t patch, there’s no shame in hiring someone.

Set a deadline

Nothing drives commitment and movement on a project like a date. Make use of this natural constraint to help get action from interested parties.

Set a date for an information session, a date for expressing interest, and a date for a final commitment. Having several dates along with some well timed communications specifically targeted at the right audience should drive a healthy, interested team.

Lessons Learned

Attracting talent to your innovation project starts with what you put out there. If you make it clear what you want, look for curious-minded people, get support, and make things fun, you will have attracted more qualified people than you know what to do with.

  • Understand who you want and need on your project
  • Craft a unique value proposition for those people
  • Make a compelling call to action
  • Get the word out using social networks and existing company channels
  • Go external if you need to
  • Set a deadline

 

Need help attracting talent to your project? Try our free planning resource.

Attract Your Innovators Planning Sheet

Attract Your Innovators Planning Sheet