Emergenetics founder, Geil Browning, shares 6 interview questions proven to identify truly innovative employees.


Geil Browning

A brain researcher divulges six interview questions–and other clues–to help distinguish innovators from ordinary workers.


Many of the resumes that cross my desk are white pieces of paper that list education, experiences, and skills. Since they’re typically from traditionally-minded people who prefer not to call attention to themselves, I don’t expect anything else.

Some people who are more expressive also include links to websites, where they post videos or slide presentations. Some resumes cleverly include square QR bar codes to scan, leading to multimedia links. I’ve also seen resumes from designers that are so colorful and inventive they are like works of art. Some of these are visually stunning, but it can take me 20 minutes to decipher the creator’s job qualifications. I’ve seen a resume set up like a board game, with a spinner in the middle, and—my personal favorite—one you cut out and fold into a colorful little box with the job seeker’s information printed on all six sides. It’s a thinking-outside-the-box box!

In my last article, I noted that all people have natural strengths to be innovative, whether they are butchers or bakers or cabinet makers. But how can you identify them in the job application and interview process? Though it does give some cues, the resume—whether a white one-sheet or a creatively-designed interactive puzzle—is of course not enough.

Suppose you have evaluated your team and you realize that you do not have all brain types represented. Specifically, you need someone with a “conceptual” brain to foster innovation and ideas that are not bound by the kinds of restraints that often hinder others. (Other folks say, “It has never been done before,” “It’s too expensive,” or “You’ll never get it approved,” for instance.)

These conceptual people naturally look at things differently. They usually excel at generating ideas and making the “quantum leaps” necessary to solve difficult problems. They need to engage with the big picture. They enjoy a challenge and immediately focus on solutions, but not the steps involved to get there. They are quickly bored by details and mundane matters.

So how do you weed out the innovators from the masses? And how can you distinguish the best ones at that? Naturally you want an intelligent, energetic employee with enthusiasm and integrity, one whose values are in line with those of your organization. Finding an innovative thinker also means looking for a creative resume, with writing that is metaphorical and playful, even inspirational. Look for phrases like, “I am an idea person,” “I am visionary,” or—better yet—”I enjoy developing solutions that are fresh and new.” Don’t be suspicious of a career path that has jumped from one field to another.

The interview is where you can really get a sense of conceptual thinking. Be prepared for innovative thinkers to go off on tangents—in their minds they are not digressing, but connecting the dots. Listen for words or phrases like these: brainstorming, big picture, global, vision, hunch, oneness, synchronicity, and cutting edge.

Here are useful interview questions to ask to identify strong innovators:

1. If you were to assemble a piece of furniture from the directions, how would you go about it?

I love this question because each thinking type answers it so differently. Someone whose thinking is very innovative will often say, “I look at the picture on the box, dump the pieces in a pile on the floor, and then begin. When the project is complete, I use the directions to start a fire.”


2. When a deadline is a month away, how do you finish a project—and when?

An innovative thinker will say something like, “First, I search the Internet for ideas. Then I’ll take a walk or ponder until a solution makes itself known. This may happen immediately or it may happen three days before the deadline, but when the solution surfaces, it will come all at once—and it will come.”


3. How do you make important life decisions?

Innovative minds will answer, “I base my decisions on intuition.”

An applicant’s behaviors are also important to understanding how an innovator (if you’ve found one) would interact as part of your team. Look to uncover them with questions like these:


4. What would you do if you showed up ten minutes early for a meeting?

Does this individual talk about striking up a conversation with the nearest person, or quietly prepare for the meeting? Only you know which trait would offer an appropriate balance at your company.


5. How would you assert your ideas if you were in a meeting with a group of managers and a confrontational issue emerged?

This way you can get a sense of whether or not this applicant will wait for encouragement before speaking, or jump in with a point of view. Does your current team have outspoken leaders who would squelch innovations your candidate proposes, or would his voice be heard?


6. How would you respond if your manager suddenly changed your project?

Do you find this applicant describes immediately adapting to the new task, or holding his ground? Which would benefit your organization’s processes more?

In addition, innovative job applicants will most likely ask you where you expect your company to be in ten years. They may ask how many products you have introduced, and whether or not you have awards for innovation. They also may ask if they can bring their dog to work.

If you want innovative ideas to surface in your company, it is your job to cultivate an atmosphere in which all types of creativity are valued. Before you hire your perfect candidate, make sure your organization is truly ready to hear new ideas.

One note of caution: look for competence, not just blue-sky thinking, because ultimately you need ideas that will benefit your bottom line. Experience with real world solutions is a bonus in any job candidate.



Geil Browning is founder of Emergenetics International, an organizational development firm in the United States, Singapore, and the Netherlands. She co-created the Emergenetics Profile, a psychometric thinking and behavioral workplace assessment. Geil has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, and did postdoctoral studies at Harvard. @Emergenetics_