We Need a New Approach to Solve the Innovation Talent Gap

My brother-in-law, Joel Murphy, and his brother Erik run a family business  called Murphy & Associates in Seattle. It’s an IT and business consulting staffing business that: (a) recruits top programmers and program managers; (b) identifies key projects at large tech companies; and (c) makes a match. The service allows large companies to rapidly staff up and down. Top talent can work part of the year for full-year pay without ever having to search for a job or worry about paperwork. The key to its success is how well Murphy & Associates evaluates talent. They go beyond the resume and interview and instead focus on key projects employees worked on, using their industry expertise and deep network to discern whether the projects were truly successful, and then they cross-check the impact of the person.

What if this model existed on a larger scale to help staff innovation and growth strategy initiatives for big business?

I previously wished for a Shark-Tank for Corporate America to create more efficient capital markets to fund great innovation ideas bogged down by bureaucracy. But  capital isn’t the only problem facing big businesses that want to innovate. Many companies lack the right talent to take on important new projects that could help create the business’s next big category.

Just this year I’ve spoken to more than three CEOs who are excited about huge opportunities for category creation or big innovation, but each is stuck figuring out with how to staff it. Often they tell me that because their innovation is very similar to a previous successful business launch–the analog could range from a technology like Netflix to a consumer product innovation like the Swiffer–they’d love to hire a person who’d been a key player in those projects. I routinely hear comments like: “Who was on that team? Who did what? Finding those people would be awesome!”

In theory that should be easy to do. In practice it’s not, because success has many fathers. The teams that create breakthrough products are large. The projects last a long time, and team members come and go. By the time a product is a clear-cut success, vital team members have moved on. And if a product becomes a breakout hit, you can be sure that many people who were only peripherally involved will claim more than their fair share of success. I remember talking to someone who was a core member of the team that developed a $500 million breakthrough innovation. He recounted meeting numerous strangers who claimed they’d played a key part. He would sometimes respond: “I’m glad to meet you, because I didn’t realize you had such an important role on my project.”

Observing this problem, I’ve begun wondering: What if there was a talent exchange model that wasn’t people and skill centric, but rather project and role centric?

Said differently, I think the existing talent evaluation models should be reversed. Right now the model starts with people, then skills, then accomplishments. Validating the information is getting better (due to innovations such as LinkedIn’s endorsed skills), but most accomplishments are not vetted.

My colleague, Jody Kirchner, and I brainstormed the following: What if LinkedIn, search firms, and VCs flipped the flow. What if, instead of looking at resumes, they began by looking at recent successful products, then identified and validated who was on those teams, including  their roles, responsibilities and personal results. Only at the end would you begin to focus on individual people.

The first step is to build a searchable database of the biggest innovations, successes and toughest problems in business. A good amount of this is available already via HBR, or key lists like Fortune 100’s top fastest growing companies or Nielsen’s Breakthrough Innovation Report. The key is to create searchable details around the situation, complication and resolution. What was the original context before the success? What were the biggest barriers? How did they solve for it? The more detail, the easier it will be for other companies to identify analogs for them to explore.

The second step is to identify the team that drove the results. I think this will be easy, as I’ve discovered that core members of a team have memories like elephants. They remember intricate details, key make or break moments, and especially who was involved and who really contributed (and who did not). The teams could be self-regulated…you can identify yourself as a member of the team, but a good part of the team needs to approve.

The third step is to highlight the specific roles and responsibilities each core member had. Who was the project manager? Who was the technical lead? Who sold the idea into key stakeholders? Did this person add or detract from team chemistry? And importantly, would this project have been as successful without this person?

Finally we need a step that identifies what our CEO, Steve Carlotti, and I like to say are the 3F’s needed to drive truly extraordinary growth—Facts, Faith and Fortitude. Finding the facts is the easy part. Having the faith to believe in something that doesn’t yet exist and the fortitude to persevere are two entirely different things.  Finding a way to verify this, even if by qualitative endorsement by others on the team, is critical to finding the right people.

We believe the data to synthesize this exists –  and existing social media networks can help us validate. The question is: who will get it done? If someone can accomplish this, many companies will benefit.

Executing on Innovation
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