The Innovative Interview #1: Ivory Towers

by Steve Todd | November 16, 2009

  • My Vault
It's been my assertion that choosing a career as an intrapreneur at a large high-tech corporation can result in a satisfying and rewarding career as an inventor. When interviewing for this type of position it's paramount to investigate and evaluate a company's culture of innovation.

This is easier said than done! Nearly all large, high-tech companies will claim to be innovative.

I suggest that you enter your interview with a set of "big digs" that force your potential employer to "prove it" when it comes to innovation.

Rather than list out a set of stock innovation questions to ask during an interview, I'll be laying out the digs one-by-one in a series of in-depth articles. Each dig will come with a list of follow-up questions to help you burrow deeper.

The first area to explore with a potential employer is whether or not innovation is limited to the "privileged few" that work in what is commonly called an ivory tower. Here are some questions to get started.

Does innovation in your company occur at dedicated research facilities?

If the answer is yes, here is a set of follow-up questions:

  • What is the research track record of these facilities? How often are their ideas actually turned into products?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between the researchers and the workers in the trenches?
  • Can you give an example of trench innovation?
  • What is the reason for concentrating innovation in specific geographies as opposed to spreading it across the entire employee population?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between the researchers and the customers that use corporate products?

If the answer is no, here is a separate set of follow-up questions:

  • Where does innovation specifically take place within the corporation?
  • What is the mechanism by which the company tracks corporate-wide innovation?
  • How can a new employee participate in research and innovation?

Feel free to add your own challenging questions about ivory towers. In general, you want to ensure that you are not joining a company that limits innovation to a particular set of employees. You're looking for a "level playing field", where all employees are encouraged to innovate (this is important even if you are interviewing for a position in a research facility!).

The foundational aspect of innovation at a large company is a keen awareness of customer problems and needs. It stands to reason that the majority of new ideas will be generated by the employees that are most closely interacting with customers. They see all the problems and they feel the customer's pain. Field employees are often the most motivated when it comes to innovating and delivering quickly.

Make sure that trench employees are being allowed to innovate. Ask for specific examples to find out whether or not this is true.

One final piece of advice: ask questions about ivory towers to everybody on your interview schedule (and not just the technical people)! From HR, to managers, and to executives, a truly innovative company should have a well-communicated corporate strategy for innovation.

Steve
http://stevetodd.typepad.com
Twitter: @SteveTodd
EMC Intrapreneur

Filed Under: Technology

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