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How to hire creative people, fix problems in a crisis

Gauging somebody’s subject matter knowledge, relevant skills and intelligence is relatively easy, but understanding their creativity is not

We go deep into a candidate’s intelligence and work experience when we’re hiring, and we just assume the person to be creative. It’s interesting, isn’t it? And more so now, at a time when we’re dealing with a pandemic that’s turned every known way of working on its head, and need creative solutions to every problem.

Gauging somebody’s subject matter knowledge, relevant skills and intelligence is relatively easy, but understanding their creativity is not. What if there is a silver bullet, one question that can tell you a lot about how creative somebody is? Would you be interested in knowing that question?

Typically, interviewers ask: Tell me about yourself?, or more bluntly, Who are you? Instead, how about asking: Who all are you? A person who hones multiple affiliations is more creative than a person who identifies life in limited dimensions. If you define yourself narrowly in terms of professional affiliation, you are very much limited by those and it limits your learning. If that one key affiliation goes down for some reason, you are left with nothing.

It is critical that you fill-in your life with multiple affiliations, such as taking up a music class, teaching children how to code, playing badminton, writing short stories, learning to cook, and also making time for your day job. A bit like a Twitter bio, multiple identities separated by commas. That is more like a creative person, the one regularly sought out by companies like Apple.

The multiple affiliations in life translate into being a T-shaped personality at work. A T-shaped person has significant depth in a subject matter along with an ability to relate to several other domains. The stem of the “T" represents expertise, while the bar indicates empathy.

Why is a T-shaped person key to creative problem-solving? Important ideas are born at the intersection of disciplines because they must exhibit both utility, which typically is grounded in the depth of a discipline, and novelty, which often comes from across disciplines.

I’m not suggesting one is jack of all trades, but certainly be a master of one or two, and reasonably appreciative of others. A T-shaped person is adept at free-association between radically different concepts.

Such a person would be far more proficient at solving problems than an I-shaped (read deep expert), or a dash-shaped (read pure generalist). By the virtue of your work, most of the problems you face would stem from your discipline, but you will not be able to find a novel answer by going any deeper in your discipline. The only way out would be to look across disciplines and draw inspiration from how others have solved the same problem elsewhere. Borrowing from other disciplines, or cross-pollinating, would not only help you attack your problem more efficiently, but also bring fresh breath to your core discipline.

So, next time you are looking for a new hire, do not just look at the relevant domain expertise, but the deliberate exposure to other domains and the ability to draw useful insights. Problems are increasingly becoming cross-functional and so should be the solvers.Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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