Creativity Conquers Uncertainty. Here’s How To Hire For It.

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The following is an excerpt from the HarperCollins book, Mastering the Hire: 12 Strategies to Improve Your Odds of Finding the Best Hire. Based on scientific research and first-hand interview experience with thousands of candidates, the book provides proven strategies that help employers consistently make great hires.

Navigating an increasingly complex world requires the ability to think creatively. Complexity isn’t new and is due to a mix of emerging business models, global integration, expectations of corporate social responsibility, technology, and increasingly informed customers. Amidst unexpected crises, however, it takes on new importance.

According to an annual global study conducted by IBM, 80% of CEOs anticipate this increase in complexity, but only 49% believe their organizations are prepared to deal with it. The same research shows that creative thinking has become a prerequisite for success. Clearly, organizations need talent that see things differently than others. They need creative thinkers who can help move organizations in unanticipated and ultimately successful directions.

Interviewing for creativity

Determining if someone is creative isn’t easy. Even when asked to describe their own creativity, people find it difficult to do so. Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment during an interview for Wired magazine in 1996, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Most interview questions don’t acknowledge this reality and instead ask candidates to give examples of creative solutions they’ve generated in their work experience. These types of questions focus primarily on ideas and results, not on the process. Assessing ideas and results, however, requires understanding the candidate’s context. A candidate may describe something that was creative within their context, but to you it may seem lackluster. Or, vice versa, it may seem creative but was par for the course. 

This is a problem you cannot solve. Regardless of your understanding of the candidate’s context, your opening question still needs to be a traditional one. Start by asking any of the following standard creativity questions:

  • Have you had a project which required you to think “outside the box”? If so, what ideas did you generate and what was the result?
  • Have you come up with an innovative idea or solution recently at work If so, what resulted from the idea?
  • Have you faced a problem at work that you solved in a unique way? If so, what was the outcome?

Asking one or two of these questions is still valuable because it sets the foundation for addressing the challenge that Steve Jobs identified. Next you need to ask questions that specifically help you understand the candidate’s mental process.

The link between artistic and professional creativity

Creativity is hard to assess because it is a mind state that people enter to generate results. It is often more recognizable when examined via the artistic creativity exhibited by musicians, poets, dancers, or other artists. For this reason, a considerable amount of research on creative mental processes has been done with artists. Fortunately, artistic creativity and the creativity needed in the working world are related. Studies have shown that whether a person is a chief operating officer or a sculptor, a similar mental shift occurs when they think creatively. Dr. Joel Lopata, a Professor of Psychology and Creativity at The Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, found that, “When artists—or people in general—work across domains…they are in what can be called a distinct creative mental space, which is distinct and different from a rational, logical, and analytical state.”

That commonality between artists and professionals holds the answer to effective assessment of creative thinking. Think about someone you know who is artistic. How would you describe them when it comes to their art?

  • They care deeply about their work. They spend hours refining it. They re-work it countless times, look at it from countless angles, and start over countless times.
  • They’re able to suspend judgment. While they are working, they put aside what others will think about their art. They believe in it, even if others don’t.
  • They work hard even though they don’t know if others will like the final product. Only in the execution do they know if what they’ve created has an impact. If they get rejected, they try again.

Additional questions to ask

Creativity is about caring deeply, suspending judgement, and being tenacious. It is this combination of mental qualities that you need to assess for. To accomplish this, you will ask a series of questions that build upon one another and will help determine their ability to get into a creative mindset at work:

  • Have you had a project or assignment at work that you cared deeply about? Why did you care so deeply? How did that affect you? What was the result?
  • Has there been a project that caused you to either stay longer at work or come back to it later when you were home, but not because of a deadline you had to meet?

Close out this set of questions with one or both of the following:

  • When do you come up with your best ideas?
  • How often do you have ideas that get shot down?

If the answer to the question directly above is, “All the time,” then ask: “Why is that?” “Why do you keep offering ideas?”  

If the answer is, “Rarely,” then ask: “Why is that?” “Tell me about an idea that did get shot down?”

What to listen for

Asking them when they come up with ideas helps you determine how invested they become in the creative process. The answer you want to hear are things like, “while driving my car,” “in the shower,” “in the middle of the night.” The combination of caring deeply and tenacity means when they are in a creative state, their mind doesn’t only think about solutions while at work. Their mental wheels continue turning until they strike upon an idea.

Throughout this series of questions, you are listening for evidence of their ability to suspend judgement, deal with doubt, and keep plugging away. The question about ideas getting shot down is designed to identify that directly. In their answer you will hear whether doubt or judgement ultimately weakens them or strengthens them. Creative minds rebound from doubt or use it to move forward. They don’t stay diminished by it.

The idea behind the line of questions is to gain a sense of whether they have the underlying characteristics of creativity and if they’ve applied them in a work setting. Sometimes you’ll come across candidates who were not able to leverage their creativity because their work environment was stifling. They may mention that the environment was not conducive to creativity and may acknowledge they struggled as a result.

That is okay, because if you are seeking creative thinking then you want someone who was unhappy when they couldn’t express that side of themselves through their work. That unhappiness is not a bad thing. It is often what propels them forward to change things and to make progress even if they are only allowed to tinker around the edges.

Know your own comfort with creativity

As the interviewer, you need to know how much creativity is needed for the role. If you believe you need high levels of creativity, then you are looking for someone who will have answers during an interview that you hadn’t prepared for. That means you need to know your own comfort with creativity. Because if you are less creative you will likely eliminate creative people. You will view them as hard to manage because they always want to try something new or “crazy.” 

If during the interview you think the candidate’s answers are “too different,” then withhold judgment and ask yourself, “But isn’t that what I want? Or is it too much?” If the candidate’s ideas are coupled with rigorous thinking, strong analytical skills, strong judgement, or any other criteria you have, then you shouldn’t view the candidate negatively. Creatively pushing the envelope requires an element of risk-taking. Not just from the candidate—but from the person doing the hiring as well.

Chaka Booker is a leadership development expert and author of Mastering the Hire: 12 Strategies to Improve Your Odds of Finding the Best Hire.



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