Hiring the Outliers
Building innovation teams requires a different breed
The very balance of air superiority during World War II was at risk of being upended. Germany was close to launching the world’s first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, a plane faster and more heavily armored than anything comparable in the Allied fleet.
In response, the US military asked Lockheed Martin to produce a jet fighter prototype. The catch was that it needed to be ready in 150 days. Lockheed put 33 year-old chief engineer Kelly Johnson on the task, who had quickly risen up the ranks based on his success building the twin-engine P-38.
Kelly set up his team with 30 engineers and 30 mechanics in a bomber production area in Burbank, California. To keep the work secret, he rented a circus tent and began the work with his team of geeks to produce a plane that would fly 200 mph faster than the P-38.
One problem emerged though. The tent was located next to a noxious plastics factory and the stench kept wafting into the tent. One day project engineer Irv Culver picked up a call and responded, “Skunk works”. The name stuck and eventually became the team’s logo.
The XP-80 was completed seven days ahead of schedule on January 1944. Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program, aka “Skunk Works”, went on to build many other well-known aircraft like the U-2 spy plane and the iconic SR-71 Blackbird . The success of the Skunk Works group inspired other companies to also create their own versions of skunkworks teams to help drive innovation efforts.
The nature of the work required immense skills, disruptive creativity, and intense focus on execution. Kelly’s team had superstars like Mary Golda Ross, who had helped fix flaws in the P-38 and became the first female Native American flight engineer. Each engineer on the team were talented, quirky, and mirrored the misfit profile of today’s developers. In the traditional era of the 40’s and 50’s though, they did not fit the ideal of model employees.
The genius of Kelly Johnson was understanding how to mold a team of misfits into a high functioning team. Forty years later, Steve Jobs followed Kelly’s playbook, taking twenty hand-picked people out of Apple’s main campus to build the Mac.
Jobs actively recruited rebels, talented but audacious individuals who could move fast and get things done. On a team offsite in 1983, he laid out his vision for the team:
“It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.”
Apple at that point had become a large organization. It had processes and politics and people that did not necessarily have Apple’s interests at heart. Jobs knew that in order to allow the Mac team to succeed, he needed the best of the best willing to bend the rules and advocate crazy ideas, like “the mad ones” to borrow from Jack Kerouac.
Most enterprises are not oriented to finding and keeping these types of individuals. For startups and innovative tech companies, they succeed in hiring these outliers because they are willing to take risks and explore hires from non-traditional backgrounds.
When I joined my first tech company as a junior developer, I did not have a traditional computer science background and had limited programming experience. However the company offered smart people opportunities to explore new roles. Our head of sales engineering was an English major and tech writer. One head of product was from HR and another product leader was a philosophy major.
In traditional enterprises, hiring is done in bands that set compensation ranges and career paths. Within those bands, roles are defined by static job descriptions that lay out the experience, requirements, and responsibilities. These job descriptions then get shared with recruiters whose key metric of success is presenting a certain number of acceptable profiles to the hiring manager.
Job descriptions only describe today’s work. However they fail on two fronts. One, the role as described rarely aligns to the work performed. Second, the job description only presents what is needed now and not how the role will likely evolve in the future.
If you are hiring for innovation or pulling together an innovation team from internal staff, this poses a problem. Innovation by its very nature is not about what you are building now, nor does it map to generic skill sets. Enterprises that have successfully built innovation teams have been able to work around static hiring practices to find ways to hire outliers.
How do enterprise identify the right candidates however so that they have the capacity to be high performing contributors to the team? There are five characteristics innovation teams have found that help to identify high performing outliers:
- Breadth of experience — Jobs said on the launch of the iPad 2, “technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” Innovation requires a much broader perspective and creating the next groundbreaking product forces teams to look beyond their own domain for inspiration. This is the value of cross-disciplinary teams and building teams around diversity of experiences and cultures. Instead of seeing people with “weird” or “different” backgrounds, look at what experiences they bring that can present a fresh perspective to the team.
- Lateral thinking — The value in having diverse experiences is that it often shapes minds that can think across domains of knowledge. They can build connections outside of the normal frame of reference and apply in creative ways concepts from one domain to problems in another. Most groundbreaking startup innovations took shape by taking emerging technologies and marrying those to industry challenges, such as ride sharing or autonomous driving or vacuums as James Dyson did when he inserted an industrial cyclone to a common household appliance.
- History of creation — This speaks to abilities in execution as well as problem solving. People that have created or built something from scratch demonstrate the focus to get things done and to work through challenges in the creation process. They demonstrate the type of grit and perseverance that defines the word geek, diving deeply into a project or body of knowledge for the sense of accomplishment. People with passion projects are often key contributors to innovation teams.
- Comfort with uncertainty — The nature of innovation is one of uncertainty where failure or success is not so binary. The outliers thrive in such environments where many others would feel anxiety, be overly cautious, or quit. Trailblazers instead crave the freedom to create from the ground up and have a natural inclination to try new ideas, a key behavior required for continuous learning and experimentation.
- Ability to learn — You want people that have demonstrated the ability to quickly learn and become accomplished in at least one relevant domain. It is not important that outliers have every checkbox ticked on a litany of skills from a job description. What is more important is that the person has shown the initiative to take on new challenges and acquire the knowledge quickly. Of all the skills, this is the most critical to driving innovation.
The final consideration has to do with after you hire your team of outliers. You need to provide a working environment and culture to do their best work. As Jobs said:
“Building an environment that makes people feel they are surrounded by equally talented people and their work is bigger than they are. The feeling that the work will have tremendous influence and is part of a strong, clear vision.”
Innovation teams only succeed if they believe they are doing important work and are given the agency to test the boundaries of creation. And these teams need to be supported by the enterprise through an overall innovation strategy that ensures innovation makes a real impact to the organization.
Does your company have an innovation team? Of the skills listed above, does this map to the talent on your innovation team or are other skills needed?
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