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To Drive Innovation, We Need To Hire For Diversity And Empathy

2019 March 20
by Greg Satell

One of the questions I get asked quite often, both at conferences and when coaching executives, is what type of personality is best suited for innovation so that they can optimize their hiring. Are technical people better than non-technical people? Introverts better than extroverts? Is it better to hire foxes or hedgehogs?

The first thing I tell them is that there has been no definitive research that has found that any specific personality type contributes to innovation. In fact, in my research I have found that there is not even a particular kind of company. If you look at IBM, Google and Amazon, for example, you’ll find that they innovate very differently.

The second thing I point out is that every business needs something different. For example, Steve Jobs once noted that since Apple had always built integrated products, it never learned how to partner as effectively as Microsoft and he wished it would have. So the best approach to hiring for innovation is to seek out those who can best add to the culture you already have.

Foxes vs. Hedgehogs

In Good to Great, author Jim Collins invokes Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay about foxes and hedgehogs to make a point about management. “The fox,” Berlin wrote, “knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Collins then devotes an entire chapter to explaining why hedgehogs perform better than foxes.

Yet as Phil Rosenzweig points out in The Halo Effect, this is a highly questionable conclusion. Even if it were true that the most successful companies focus on one core skill or one core business, that doesn’t mean that focusing on “one big thing” will make you more successful. What it probably means is that by betting on just one thing you increase your chances of both success and failure.

Think about what would have happened it Apple had said, “we’re going to focus just on computers” or if Amazon had focused on just books. There is also evidence, most notably from Philip Tetlock, that foxes outperform hedgehogs on certain tasks, like making judgments about future events.

So the best strategy would probably be to hire a fox if you’re a hedgehog and to hire a hedgehog if you’re a fox. In other words, If you like to drill down and focus on just one thing, make sure you have people around that can help you integrate with other skills and perspectives. If you like to dabble around, make sure you have people who can drill down.

Introverts vs Extroverts

We tend to see leaders as brash and outgoing, but my colleague at Inc, Jessica Stillman points out that introverts can also make great leaders. They tend to be better listeners, are often more focused and are better prepared than social butterflies are. Those are great qualities to look for when adding someone to add to your team.

Still, you wouldn’t want to have an entire company made up of introverts and, in Social Physics, MIT’s Sandy Pentland explains why. Perhaps more than anything else, innovation needs combination. So it’s important to have people who can help you connect to other teams, both internally and externally, bring in new ideas and help take you in new directions.

Consider Amazon, a company that is not only incredibly successful but also highly technically sophisticated. You might expect that it hires a lot of introverted engineers and I’m sure that’s true. Yet the skill it is most focused on is writing, because it understands that to create a successful product, you need to get a lot of diverse people to work together effectively.

So much like with foxes and hedgehogs, if you’re an introvert you should make sure that you have extroverts that can help you connect and if you are an extrovert, make sure you have people who can focus and listen.

Technical vs. Non-Technical People

By all accounts, Steve Jobs was never more than a mediocre engineer, but was clearly a legendary marketer. Nevertheless, he felt strongly that technical people should be in charge. As he once told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, in an interview:


“I have my own theory about why the decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The product starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.”


Yet the story is not nearly as clear cut as Jobs makes it out to be. When IBM hit hard times it was Lou Gerstner, who spent his formative professional years as a management consultant, that turned it around. Steve Ballmer clearly made missteps as CEO of Microsoft, particularly in mobile, but also made the early investments in cloud technology led to Microsoft’s comeback.

So much like with foxes vs. hedgehogs and introverts vs. extroverts, the choice between technical and non-technical people is a false one. Far more important is how you build a culture in which people of varied skills and perspective can work closely together with a shared sense of purpose.

Today, as we enter a new era of innovation, organizations will need a far more diverse set of skills than ever before and building a collaborative culture will be key to success.

Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

Over the past few decades, the digital revolution has shaped much of our thinking about how we advance a business. Digital technology required a relatively narrow set of skills, so hiring people adept at those skills was a high priority. Yet now, the digital era is ending and we need to rethink old assumptions.

Over the next decade, new computing architectures like quantum and neuromorphic computing will rise to the fore. Other fields, such as genomics and materials science are entering transformative phases. Rather than living in a virtual world, we’ll be using bits to drive atoms in the physical world.

That will change how we need to innovate. As Angel Diaz of IBM told me a few years back, “…we need more than just clever code. We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.”

That’s why today collaboration is becoming a real competitive advantage and we need to focus far less on specific skills and “types” and far more on getting people with diverse skills, backgrounds and perspectives to work together effectively.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared on

Image: Pixabay


4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2019

    When I read the header for this article, I was expecting something slightly different, because “diversity” in so many instances is taken to mean ethnic, cultural or gender diversity. But in a way, you cover those issues by concentrating on other, cross-cutting, forms of diversity such as introvert vs. extrovert or technical vs. non-technical. These apply irrespective of cultural variations; hopefully, readers will grasp the analogy and apply your thoughts to those aspects as well.

    Ultimately, there is a sound business imperative behind hiring using any sort of diversity criteria, especially if you are in the IT business (though with global industries, it equally applies across a whole range of other sectors). We are all developing or helping develop goods or services which can now potentially be used by anyone, anywhere. We need to create those goods or services so that they appeal to, and can be effectively used by, anyone anywhere. It follows from that, that exposing the whole process of product development, from conceptualisation, through design, build and testing, to marketing and distribution, will benefit massively from exposure at all those stages to the widest possible range of different life experiences, skills sets and background knowledge.

    In other words, diversity isn’t just a “nice to have”; it’s an essential part of overall business success.

  2. March 22, 2019

    Well said! Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

  3. Alan Arnett permalink
    March 24, 2019

    Hi Greg. You are spot on that different people collaborating in pursuit of shared goals is what enables innovation to happen.

    The core academic research has been happening in the world of applied creativity at least since the 60’s. The way they framed it was that if you wanted innovation (more new and useful products/outcomes/systems), you needed to pay attention to people and their differences; climate i.e. how people treat each other; and process i.e. knowing how to use and flex tools and methods really does make a difference.

    In terms of people, they tended to pay attention to pretty much the differences you talk about. Introverts and extraverts – how you create the climate in the room for both to thrive and use the tools; Tech vs non-tech – variously seen as task-focused vs people-focused, but also recognising that all the different functions in a business need to collaborate to create value from innovation; and then some version of incremental vs radical thinkers, because without the incrementalists, the radicalists are unlikely to stay around long enough to build anything that works.

    At Coopers & Lybrand we took this more academic research and did some applied research on companies that were successful at innovation. It proved essentially the same messages in real life, but we packaged it slightly differently around how leaders create climate and facilitate people and process.

    In recent years I’ve expanded my own research to include not just what leaders, cultures and systems need to be like, but what that actually means for every individual in the system. In the end, if an organisation is not innovating well enough already, making that happen is a change process and, that means each individual will be affected. I think we focus a lot on leaders and systems, and not enough on what it means for individuals (including leaders).

    One of the best examples of this is the introvert/extravert discussion. If we think of those as ‘identities’ – who we are – those beliefs act as constraints, in both cases. If we think of them as preferences – what we prefer to do first – then we can also see that all of us do the ‘other’ thing too. All introverts can connect with other people, or they wouldn’t be in an organisation, but they just prefer to think on their own first. All extraverts can sit quietly and think, but they prefer to connect and act first. It’s how we handle those differences and others that creates the possibilities. And some of that has nothing to do with leaders, or systems, or climates or anything else. It’s us. Noticing our preferences and biases, and being personally accountable for using more of our whole selves, not our limited, habitual selves.

    In the end, leaders do have a pivotal role in understanding all of this and learning to work with it, but so does everyone else. For a system to truly change, everyone has to engage at some point. That’s the fun of doing this work 🙂

  4. March 26, 2019

    Thanks for some great insights Alan.

    – Greg

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