Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Fourteen Interview Questions to Help You Hire Your Next Innovator

Find out before it’s too late if you’re recruiting a trailblazer or an imposter.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Innovation often comes from having an eclectic approach. It’s less about expertise and more about minds that can think through details while focusing on the bigger picture. It’s about having an aptitude for both the qualitative and the quantitative. It’s also about the ability to mesh a wild idea with reality, and the fortitude to bring it to market.

The potential for innovation in your company increases when you have employees who demonstrate unrestrained thinking and the ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas. Is it possible to identify the people with these capabilities during a first interview? Absolutely—if you know what you look for and if you’re armed with the right questions.

When searching for the next innovator to add to your team, start by looking for these five critical innovation skills and asking the relevant questions to find candidates who have them.

1. Strategic imagination: the ability to dream with purpose and generate new ideas. People with this skill are perceptive enough to recognize the driving forces that are changing our world and imaginative enough to harness this potential in a business context. Dylan Lauren, for instance, dreamed of creating a candy store that combined the whimsy that appeals to children with the nostalgia that appeals to adults—resulting in Dylan’s Candy Bar, a successful confectionery empire.

2. Provocative inquiry: the knack for asking smart and unsettling questions. Employees with this kind of curiosity often shake up the status quo by wondering, “What business are we really in?” Thinking like this, for example, led automotive companies to shift to mobility systems and healthcare companies to pivot toward preventative care.

3. Creative problem solving: the application of best practices from diverse sources to create fresh solutions. This type of cleverness often generates disruptive solutions. It brings to mind James Dyson, who saw a cyclone-shaped dust collector in a timber yard, and then applied that approach to designing a new vacuum.

4. Agility: the ability to adapt and be resourceful in unanticipated situations. Employees with this dexterity can think on their feet and deal with wild cards that are thrown their way. This capability is helping companies in rapidly changing industries like entertainment offer their content in new, mobile, and even wearable channels more quickly than ever before, and respond rapidly to unexpected competition. Think of Netflix creating its own original programming, and traditional book publishers launching eBooks or imbedding multimedia into the reading experience.

5. Resilience: a track record of tenacity and courage in the face of obstacles. This competence is a key trait for success because great ideas are not always obvious at first. For example, more than 300 investors turned down Tim Westergren, who helped found Pandora, before he got the funding he needed to make the company a success.

Employees with these five skills empower their organizations to challenge the current situation and drive innovation growth. So how do you find people with these capabilities? Discovering whether or not a candidate possesses these skills takes a smart interviewing approach.

As you ask the following questions, which were designed specifically to reveal a candidate’s level of experience and comfort with each skill, look for individuals who give you a glimpse of their process and application. Innovative thinkers can easily and passionately explain their approach and expected outcomes. They can tell you stories about projects where they had to use these skills to drive results. They’re open about the challenges they faced in their work, and can offer detailed, firsthand accounts of their experience.   

At the same time, beware of candidates who generalize or toss around business jargon in lieu of specifics.  If you hear words or phrases like “collaboration” or “paradigm-shifting” without specific examples, you’re interviewing an armchair innovator. If the anecdotes they tell are business news stories or projects that others did, rather than detailing their own involvement, that’s also a red flag. When I’m interviewing people, I want to know what they thought of their own leadership experience and the innovations they created—not how much they admire Apple’s or Google’s approach to innovation.

Beware of candidates who generalize or toss around business jargon in lieu of specifics.

By drawing from our sample questions below, and adding your own, you’ll minimize the chance of hiring an innovation imposter.

Strategic Imagination
1. If you had one month and a $50,000 budget to tackle any project, what would it be?

2. Which external jolts or wild cards have the potential to significantly impact our industry?

3. Which new customer segments will emerge in five years? How will those customers discover our product?

Provocative Inquiry
4. What are the unshakable industry beliefs about what customers want? What if the opposite was true?

5. You have five minutes with our CEO; what question(s) would you ask that would make him/her rethink our business?

Creative Problem-Solving
6. What steps do you take when you need to make an immediate decision but don’t have much data available?

7. Which systems, methodologies, or standards were changed in your previous organization because of your suggestions? How did it benefit the company?

8. In which situations do you seek the help of others for decision making?

9. What do you do when priorities shift quickly? Give me an example.

10. Tell me about a decision you made while under intense pressure.

11. Share an example of a time when you were given new information that affected a decision you had already made. How did you proceed?

12. Give me an example of when you failed at something. How did you react?

13. You’ve presented a great idea to management, but they’re not buying in. What’s your next move?

14. Imagine you’re leading one of our product development teams. You’re months away from launch and your tech or marketing budget has been cut in half. What do you do?

A candidate’s ability to respond with strong examples and solutions is a good sign of innovation experience and capabilities. Asking these questions out of sequence—an agility question followed by a resilience question—mirrors the element of unpredictability that occurs in daily work situations. Reach for the above list during the interview process, and as you grow more comfortable with the questions, tailor them to speak to real-time challenges or add your own questions. By hiring individuals who demonstrate these five critical skills, you’re on a path to transforming your employee base into a team of innovators.

For a list of more than 70 questions to use when interviewing prospective innovators, email us at and ask for the “Questions For Hiring Innovators Tool.”

Lisa Bodell
Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink and author of Kill the Company.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.