The Ultimate Guide to
Innovation Talent Assessments

MEASURING THE INNOVATION COMPETENCIES OF YOUR EMPLOYEES


Why is employee innovation talent important?


If you spend time in the corporate innovation world, you will notice the main approaches to driving internal innovation tend to focus on either introducing new innovation processes, such as design thinking and lean start-up; or on changing the work environment in an effort to induce more creativity and collaboration. But after more than two decades of these approaches and limited results, it seems time to look for the missing piece. In the author’s view, that missing piece is the human aspect of innovation – the raw innovation ability or innovation talent of the workforce. Let’s take a look at innovation talent assessments.


Are all employees equally innovative?


Delving into the question of innovation ability, you will also soon pick up on a widespread belief that everyone is an innovator. It’s true that “to innovate is human.” We humans are the only species that rearranges our environment and realizes ideas from our imaginations. The belief that everyone is an innovator underpins employee innovation challenges where anyone can post a suggestion or idea. We are all for democratization. But after a decade of involvement in such internal employee challenges, we have found they often lead to lots of incremental ideas, and many poorly expressed ideas. Yes, great ideas can come from anywhere, but that does not mean they are equally likely to come from everyone.

The fact that few employee ideas are implemented is partly because little thought is given upfront to funding for winning ideas, or the “not invented here” syndrome exists in which business units do not adapt to outside suggestions. But it is also because most employees lack the business skills, influencing skills and delivery skills required in innovation. So while innovation CAN come from anyone, it takes a lot more than creativity. And there are different degrees and flavors of innovation talent and skill in different individuals.


Is innovation ability inborn or acquired?


Is innovation talent an inborn trait, or a reflection of the environment one is raised in? Ah, the old nature vs nurture question. We believe it is both.

There is some evidence that creativity is in part due to heredity. Studies of twins reveal that about 20 percent of creativity is heritable. Two heritable traits – openness and fluid intelligence – appear to be correlated with creativity. Several gene studies, albeit small, highlight two neurotransmitter systems in contributing to creativity (oxytocinergic and dopaminergic pathways), and these pathways can differ in individuals. So by all accounts, “Creativity is a multifaceted construct in which heredity and environment play a joint role in contributing to creative thinking and real-life achievements.” (Chong et al.)

Curiosity is also innate to humans and, being genetically based, it is heritable. Researchers identified changes to a specific gene type that is more common in individual songbirds that are especially prone to exploring their environment, according to a 2007 study. In humans, mutations of this gene, known as DRD4, have been associated with a person’s propensity to seek novelty.

Like speed, endurance, height, longevity and other human traits, innovation ability is not evenly distributed. When you think about it, we humans are so varied, why should innovation ability be any different?


Why do you need an innovation talent assessment, anyway?


You may fairly ask, if we all have different innovation abilities – whether due to nature or nurture – what is the point of finding this out? Once you have this information, how can you use it? Does innovation ability even affect outcomes? Well, yes. A resounding yes. A large-scale study found that “innovation talent is statistically predictive of business results.” In fact, the study found that

Innovation talent is highly correlated with positive business results. Innovators have significantly higher innovation scores than the general population. Within the population of innovators, top scorers are associated with a larger number of positive business results than bottom scorers.

Moreover, innovation talent is not a binary “yes/no” thing. Once you know a person’s specific innovation abilities, you can better match them to projects, pair them up with complementary teammates, and offer them training to develop where needed.

And if you measure innovation ability at scale, you can also predict, on aggregate, your workforce’s readiness to innovate. At the firm level, innovation capability closely predicts growth. McKinsey compared innovation proficiency for 183 companies against economic-profit performance. Their analysis showed a strong, positive correlation between innovation performance and financial performance. So being able to predict your workforce’s capacity to innovate is very valuable indeed.


Isn’t creativity the same thing as innovation ability?


The terms “creativity” and “innovation” are all too often used interchangeably. While creativity is essential to innovation, it is not the same thing. In fact, the topic of creativity remains surprisingly undefined for innovation purposes. Large-scale research found that:

  • There are different kinds of creativity (such as artistic skill or creative writing);
  • Not all aspects of creativity correlate with improved business outcomes from innovation;
  • There are many additional skills beyond creativity that are needed to realize innovations in the real world.
    • For example, successful innovation also requires skill at idea selection, planning in uncertainty, team formation, pattern recognition, persuasion, the ability to overcome resistance to change, adaptability to changing circumstances, resourcefulness and a host of other skills.

Consequently, the traditional focus on creativity is rife with shortcomings as a means of selecting individuals for innovation and forming innovation teams. Read more about innovation teams here.


What are the different kinds of innovation talent assessments?


All right, you may say. “I am convinced there is merit in measuring my people’s innovation abilities. How should I go about it?” Well, there are different kinds of innovation talent assessments. They vary by:

  • Purpose of the innovation assessment
  • Quality of the research behind the assessment (validity, sample size, location, research methods used)
  • Practical considerations such as:
    • Accessibility
    • Ease of use
    • Reporting
    • Actionability
    • Pricing
    • Years of use/Market validation
    • Related products the vendor can offer

Let’s discuss each of these aspects of innovation talent assessments, to help you reach your own conclusions about the right assessment for your organization.

Purpose of the innovation assessment

Some innovation assessments are primarily sold as engagement or team activities. These vendors expressly state that their instrument is not predictive. They may be descriptive or have “concurrent validity.” Other innovation assessments can be used for talent selection, team design and workforce planning because they are based on “predictive validity.” We’ll talk more about validity below.

Quality of the research behind the assessment

Do the makers of the instrument claim predictive validity or concurrent validity?

Validity is the extent to which a tool measures what it’s supposed to measure. It measures the strength of your research conclusions. There are many different kinds of validity but you’re likely to run into concurrent validity and predictive validity. “Concurrent validity” refers to the degree to which the scores on a measurement are related to other scores on other measurements that have already been established as valid. In a way, concurrent validity is looking to the past for validation.

For example, the Big Five personality traits are widely viewed as valid. (The Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) So an innovation talent assessment based on the Big Five could claim concurrent validity. However, the five dimensions of personality were not developed in order to predict business results.

In fact, controversy exists as to whether or not the Big 5 personality traits are correlated with success in the workplace, let alone innovation outcomes. The low correlation coefficients between personality and job performance mean the Big Five are not very predictive. Whereas predictive validity is based on the test scores accurately predicting performance on some other measure in the future. Predictive validity looks to the future, the ability to predict an outcome.

What kind of respondents is the instrument based on?

Digging deeper into the technical background of the assessment, you should consider the kinds of people the research studied. For an innovation assessment, it is important to ask:

  • Was the research based on entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs or both?
  • Were social entrepreneurs included, or only for-profits?
  • Were the entrepreneurs business owners like your local florist or small law practice?
  • Or were they founders of companies that scaled globally?
Where were the respondents located, and how many were there?

In addition to the type of respondents, it is important to know the location and size of the research sample:

  • Was the research conducted in a single country or region, or internationally?
    • Single-country findings cannot be generalized internationally.
  • Was it with 30 people or 3,000 people?
    • Generally, the larger the sample, the better.
What research methods were used?

Finally the research methods tell us something about the care researchers invested in obtaining accurate conclusions.

  • Was the research based on qualitative methods only, e.g. structured interviews and observation; or quantitative methods?
    • Qualitative can be used at the front end to form hypotheses, but large scale quantitative is more conclusive.
  • Were the inputs self-reported, or did it include the views of colleagues and supervisors?
    • 360-degree input can be more accurate, though other kinds of bias can slip in (e.g. rivalry).
  • Were business outcomes collected? Were they validated or self-reported?
    • An objective measure (such as business outcomes) is necessary for predictive validity.
  • Was there just one research wave, or were the researchers able to reproduce their findings in a validation study?
    • A single wave can be subject to error, so the ability to reproduce the results adds credibility to the research.

These are just a few of the aspects you should consider to determine the quality of the research underpinning the innovation assessment. But once you get it down to 2-3 potential vendors, how can you compare one innovation assessment to another?

Reliability and internal consistency of innovation assessments

Reliability and internal consistency of the instrument are statistics that let you compare one assessment tool to another. The standards for any employee-related assessments are higher than for descriptive assessments. That is because if the HR assessment is going to be used to inform business decision-making (e.g. hiring, placement, project assignments), real lives and business results can be impacted.

What are good reliability and consistency numbers for innovation assessments?

To nerd out for a moment here, reliability is measured with what is called a “p-value.” If the p-value of an instrument is very small, then the statistical significance is thought to be very large. A p-value of .001 means the probability that such a result could have happened by chance is only 0.1 percent. So a low p-value is desirable.

The consistency or inter-relatedness of the various items within an instrument is measured by the alpha coefficient, or “Cronbach’s alpha.” The higher the α (alpha) coefficient, the better. The higher the alpha, the more the items probably measure the same underlying concept.

In HR, the following can be used as a guideline for reliability:

Practical considerations for choosing an innovation assessment

So the purpose of the assessment and the quality of the research behind it are key. But there are a number of other practical considerations that should factor into your final selection of an innovation talent assessment. Let’s look at these seven practical considerations in choosing an innovation assessment:

  • Accessibility
    How do respondents access the instrument? Is it a paper assessment? Online? Is it only given by a certified professional, or can it be self-administered? Is it available in multiple languages that suit your workforce?
  • Ease of use
    Are the instructions and questions in the assessment easy for most respondents to understand?
  • Reporting
    Are the results easy to understand, or do they require interpretation by a certified professional?
  • Actionability
    Do the assessment results suggest clear ways the employee and his or her manager can use this information to drive improved innovation results? Do the assessment results translate into action?
  • Market validation
    The longer an assessment is in the market, the more one can gauge its usefulness. Do customers believe in the data? Do they derive the expected benefits from using it?
  • Pricing
    Is the assessment affordable? If only a handful of employees will be assessed, this may be less of a consideration. But if you want to assess hundreds or thousands of employees and candidates, price can be a bigger factor.
  • Other related tools and services
    Does the assessment company offer related tools and services to help apply the results of the assessment? For example:
    – Do they also provide a dashboard with tools to view teams, divisions or other segments of the workforce?
    – Do they offer coaching on the correct use and meaning of the assessment?
    – Do they offer employee training to develop the innovation skills that are lacking?

Four Elements of Innovation Ability


Now with the basics of innovation assessments under our belt, let’s talk about the four elements of innovation ability: (a) motivation; (b) proclivities (an inclination or predisposition toward a particular behavior); (c) skills; and (d) preferences. Some innovation assessments mix up proclivities (or aptitude) with skills. Others only assess preferences. In this article, we hold that motivation, proclivities, skills and preferences are all parts of innovation ability.

Here are the differences between the four elements of innovation ability:

  • Motivation
    Human motivation is often contextual and ebbs and flows, and that makes it hard to assess. A person may be very unmotivated to mow their lawn, but very motivated to toss a ball with their kid. I may not be very motivated at 4:00 in the morning, but I’m firing on all cylinders at 11:00 am. You may be able, but not willing, to innovate for your specific employer because you have lost faith that your discretionary effort will be rewarded.
  • Proclivities
    Proclivities are either inborn or deeply conditioned behaviors that, by adulthood, are quite stable aspects of the self. In addition to personality, these include attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors. We know that innovators are not motivated by the same things as ordinary employees. For example, they may prefer a challenging assignment creating a new product or business vs. a corner office that comes with a staid routine.
  • Skills
    The main difference between proclivities and skills is that skills are easier to develop. A person can have little inborn talent for a given activity, and with extended effort, they can develop their skills. But a high proclivity can make learning a related skill much easier. At the same time, seeing yourself succeeding at a new skill can make you feel more positive about it, and alter your sense of yourself. Over time, that positive experience of a new skill can feed back into your proclivities and sense of self.
  • Preferences
    Lastly, an innovation assessment can ascertain your preferences. For example, it can detect the kind of innovation activities, or the stage of the innovation process, that you enjoy most. Preferences and skills are not the same thing. For example, you may like brainstorming but are not very prolific at it. When looking at different innovation assessments, try to ascertain whether they are measuring motivation, proclivities, skills or preferences.

Within this framework of motivation, proclivities, skills and preferences, there are five main clusters of ability that most innovation instruments assess:


Five common abilities innovation assessments measure


There are a myriad of innovation and creativity assessments out there. In addition to the four types of innovation ability (motivation, proclivities, skills and preferences), you will find different focus areas in various assessments. Some measure front-end “discovery” abilities, whereas others are quite comprehensive. There are five major types of innovation abilities that innovation assessments may measure: discovery, creativity, business, influencing and delivery.

  • Discovery
    How well does the employee recognize opportunities for innovation? Do they see opportunities in trends, in consumer behavior, in emerging technologies? Do they act on these opportunities?
  • Creativity
    How prolific is the employee at generating ideas? How “outside the box” are their ideas? Are they viable solutions?
  • Business
    How well does the employee handle the business aspects of innovation, from market sizing to business model to pricing?
  • Influencing
    How well does the employee navigate the organization for resources, be that leadership support, or technical assistance?
  • Delivery
    How effective is the employee at developing an idea into a viable concept and moving it to market?

In some innovation assessments, sub-elements such as curiosity, need for novelty, and tolerance for repetition can show up in either Discovery or Creativity. Risk-taking can be woven into the four elements or be a fifth. In other assessments, Delivery skills – such as being organized and conscientious – are not specific to innovation, which we believe is a mistake. Delivery in an innovation context is not the same as in a mature, established business. Some assessments do not include influencing, or business abilities at all. But if you want the assessment to cover the full spectrum of the innovation cycle, from front-end to back-end, then it should address all five of these elements.

Below are four of the most popular innovation assessments out there, and the elements they measure. Note that some focus on preferences (e.g. Foursight), some on proclivities (Trendhunter); some on front end skills (iDNA) and others on the full innovation process (Swarm Vision).

Trendhunter

Focused on 6 traits (we’d call them proclivities), from ‘disciplined’ to ‘willing to destroy’:

Foursight

Focused on preferences for the four roles/innovation stages:

iDNA

Focuses on 5 Discovery skills, front-end innovation abilities:

Swarm Vision

Focused on eight talents predictive of business results across the full innovation process:


How to use an innovation assessment


Once you have settled on an innovation assessment that you want to use in your workplace, how should you use it?

Use the assessment on the right population

First of all, you need to use the assessment on a population that resembles the respondents in the underlying research, e.g.:

  • If only adults were surveyed in the research, the instrument may not be valid with teenagers. If only entrepreneurs participated in the research, then it may not be valid among intrapreneurs.
  • If the instrument is based on concurrent validity, then you should not use it in situations where you need to predict business outcomes, such as placing individuals on a team, or in a specific kind of innovation task.
Use the innovation assessment alongside empirical data

Like any workforce assessment, innovation assessments should be used along with empirical data to inform decisions. For example, if an employee scores on the assessment as an Explorer (meaning they are well-suited for Horizon 2 innovation), but they submit a Transformational proposal (Horizon 3), then they may also be capable of Horizon 3 work.

Share innovation assessment results within teams

If the employees are comfortable sharing their assessment results with each other, it can be of great value to the team. The more we can understand and empathize with others, the more we can not only get along, but also leverage our different abilities for greater results. The leader can lead a debrief with the whole team, or bring in a certified consultant on that assessment to lead the session.

Use assessment data to inform team design and project assignments

If the assessment is based on predictive validity, then by all means, use the results to inform team design. A strong innovation team should have the talent aligned with the project mission. For example, a team with a low tolerance for ambiguity may be stressed out and unproductive on a Horizon 3 project.

Use innovation assessment results to target training

On average, companies invest about $1300/year in employee development, per employee. That is many times more than the cost of any innovation assessment itself. So when using the innovation assessment results, be sure to target the training to employee needs. If an employee is already highly creative, perhaps they need delivery or business skill training more than creativity workshops.

Use innovation assessment results for employee development plans

As with training, assessment results should inform the employee’s individual development plan. Say the innovation assessment finds the employee is well-suited for incremental innovation (Horizon 1). But they want to develop their creative and disruptive skills and become involved in more transformational initiatives. That goal should be explicit in their annual review. And they should be afforded ways to reach that goal. For example, they could be paired with a mentor with H2-H3 skills. They could contribute to a team working on a Transformational project. Or of course, get training on Disrupt and Create to “up” their skills to the H2-H3 range.

Use innovation assessments for workforce planning

Given the accelerating pace, and force, of change today, there is a lot of talk about the “Future Fit Workforce.” Today, companies need workers who can thrive in uncertainty and learn continuously. They need agile employees with a growth mindset who possess persistence and grit. They need workers with the ability to synthesize from disparate information sources, and to constantly create the new.

Yet surprisingly, the way companies hire workers has not changed much since the First Industrial Revolution. In the early days of mass production, companies sought workers who followed established procedures, could tolerate a lot of repetition and strict oversight of their work, and were respectful of authority. This approach made sense at the time when the goal was to evolve from handmade goods to consistent, mass-manufactured products. However, today, companies need to hire for very different skills.

So once you have assessed a good swath of your workforce, you should ask whether you have the right mix of innovation talents to thrive at the current pace of change. We argue that organizations need an increasing percentage of innovators in their numbers. And a good innovation assessment can help them achieve that through:

  • Identifying and retaining the innovators they already have
  • Developing employees’ innovation skills, as indicated by assessment results
  • Hiring more innovators (if the assessment has predictive validity)

Summary


Here are the ten main points of this ultimate guide to innovation talent assessments:

  • The innovation ability of your employees is a powerful, yet often missing piece in driving internal innovation.
  • All humans are innovators, but there are different degrees and flavors of innovation ability in different individuals.
  • Innovation ability is partly an inborn trait, and partly a reflection of the environment.
  • Innovation talent is statistically predictive of business results, so it is well worth assessing.
  • The innovation ability of your employees is a powerful, yet often missing piece in driving internal innovation.
  • While creativity is essential to innovation, it is not the same thing.
  • Innovation assessments differ in their purpose and the quality of the research underpinning the instrument.
  • In addition, there are practical considerations in choosing an innovation assessment, such as: accessibility, ease of use, reporting, actionability, pricing, market validation; and any related products the vendor can offer.
  • There are four common elements of innovation aptitude: (a) motivation; (b) proclivities; (c) skills; and (d) preferences.
  • There are five major types of innovation abilities that innovation assessments may measure: discovery, creativity, business, influencing and delivery.
  • Once you have selected an innovation assessment, use it well. Use it on the same kind of population that the research was based on; use empirical data alongside assessment results; debrief results inside teams; use the assessment results for team design, targeted training, employee development plans, and workforce planning.

We hope this article provides a useful primer on innovation talent assessments. With this knowledge, we hope you can leverage the innovation talent of your workforce to drive powerful innovation results and growth for your organization.

Sources:

Chong, Anne, et al. “The Creative Mind: Blending Oxytocinergic, Dopaminergic and Personality.” BioRxiv, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1 Jan. 2019, www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/700807v1.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzan Briganti


Suzan Briganti grew up in Silicon Valley since before it was called that. During her early career, Suzan played a key role in many industry firsts: from the first internet-enabled consumer electronics, to the first female sexual desire drug; and ten successful new consumer packaged goods products.

Suzan has founded three successful start-ups: an eponymous fashion accessories brand; an innovation consultancy called Totem; and now Swarm Vision, the innovation system that drives rapid innovation results in large enterprises, with the workforce you already have. Swarm is used by Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies to transform themselves for the innovation age.

Suzan earned the DIVA Designer of the Year Award for her fashion start-up, several patents, and won HR Tech Product of the Year for the Swarm Innovation Profiler. Suzan represents the United States on TC 56,000, Innovation Management standards.


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