No matter the industry, company or team, finding and hiring the right talent is an exciting and challenging process. In my experience, hiring for innovation adds yet another layer of complexity to this effort, as it requires candidates to have a set of unique skills and managers to be able to assess the intangibles.

Not to mention, innovation is hard.  Maybe “hard” isn’t the right word, but it definitely isn’t easy. As Innovators we need to be able to envision use-cases that can be impacted by Innovation.  Where do we come up with these use-cases? Sometimes from our customers, sometimes we look for friction points in any process or interaction that could be solved to make for an easier experience for user or customers.  Other times we need to evaluate business drivers and assess how costs savings, or better analytics, could derive a more improved customer experience.

Companies often talk about how to drive an innovative culture within their operations, go-to-markets and across their business, but as an Innovation Centre we focus on these plus additional stakeholders. We need to deliver co-innovation to our customers and partners, inspire the art-of-the-possible to every visitor, incubate new ideas and assess their feasibility and know when to shut them down when they aren’t be feasible.  We need to embody “innovation”, but what are the characteristics you need to hire for, and how do we build the best innovation team?  I recently read 33 Strategies for War by Robert Greene that talked about how the ideal troops in battle are “Fast, Flexible and Non-Linear”, three attributes that I also found incredibly relevant to Innovation.


In Innovation, we need to move quickly, not only because the pace of it is fast, but often we have so much coming at us, like new ideas we want to try, new startups to meet and new customer problems to solve.  Each of these need to be tried and assessed – quickly. We almost never say no to a new idea.  As innovators we want to try everything, but we need to assess the technical or business feasibility rapidly and move on when we know either will be a challenge.  Sometimes we think an idea is great and it’s technically feasible, but there is no business uptake.  That’s ok, sometimes even the best ideas don’t stick.  The danger is not realizing it and continually working on it without end. A strong innovation team needs to move fast, prove the validity of the innovation or shut it down. This is its own discipline. Steve Jobs if famous for his ‘Saying No’ quote:

“You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

For us, Innovation means saying “Yes” to everything but deciding quickly when to pull the plug.  Without that initial trial and assessment, we lose the opportunity to learn, to understand, or connect with the problem or the requester.  We need to spend time gleaning the problem and ideate some potential use-cases or solutions, but also know when to shut down the effort quickly without wasting too many cycles.  Speed is critical.



Within any given day we: Give customer tours, Ideate new innovations, Develop proof of concept solutions, Demo existing solutions and Engineer new architecture specifications for our projects.

This myriad of activity requires a fair degree of creativity along with business acumen and technical capability.  This is why hiring for innovation is so hard. It requires a very broad set of skills across multiple disciplines, all topped off with crucial presentation skills that are needed  to accommodate daily customer briefings. Flexibility is a key strength our team members must have. We all need to be nimble enough to pivot across all these areas and be ready to lead a discussion with customers about Art of the Possible scenarios at the drop of a hat.  We are challenged with doing each of these activities within a single day. Flexibility is essential.



We are always looking for new innovation ideas. Sometimes these ideas come from customers and sometimes they come from new technology companies such as startups or software vendors.  Being non-linear often means looking for ideas from both directions and finding connections where there seemingly is no natural adjacency. For example, a customer from the agriculture industry may have a problem that another customer is having in the manufacturing industry. Our team needs to be able to draw these parallels and see the opportunities even if it the two use cases aren’t obviously related. It takes a creative mind to think of new ways of solving problems and proxying customers challenges business models for solutions

Innovation is an iterative process and often doesn’t fit the standard project life-cycle. Sometimes we find that milestones aren’t as meaningful since we don’t always know the natural end of a project. When we examine the practicality of a technical solution it can present us with roadblocks that cause us to go in different directions, sometimes leading to dead ends, but more often than not they can lead to entirely different roads that help to drive new thinking or new development.

Being a non-linear thinker is being able to accept that traditional ways of product or solution development aren’t the only, or the best, way to drive innovation. It is finding joy in whittling away at a problem to uncover new capabilities, and being able to embrace the frustration of unexpected results. Being non-linear is a helpful trait when a solution appears before a problem, or when a solution to one problem may come from an entirely different source than expected.

Looking for candidates who exhibit “Fast, Flexible and Non-Linear” attributes has helped me to to inform my hiring practices and build a strong innovation culture in the Toronto Innovation Centre. While this strategy from 33 Strategies of War has been hugely useful, I am happy to report that we will most likely not be adopting any of the other 32…


Tell me, what are the three ideal attributes that you find in your Innovation teams?



Wayne Cuervo

Director of Innovation

Cisco Canada