If you are a regular reader of our company blog, you might notice we mention our dependence on creative, flexible staff fairly frequently. We've even especially identified creativity as a major benefit to us in roles that don't traditionally rely on it. If you ask any of our Spiderfolks about their hobbies, you'll find a creative person with in-depth knowledge of one or another unusual pursuit. It's not by accident, it's by design.
It's easy to understand hiring creative people for traditionally creative roles, and roles that have responsibility to implement more creative elements into the final product. Yet, it might seem unusual to focus on hiring creative people to man our helpdesk, manage our internal resources, and provide technical expertise. And yet to us, it's been a no-brainer because we know that creative people can't help but want to be creative. When faced with a problem with an obvious, yet unachievable solution, creative people tend to figure out a path to success from seemingly nothing. Creative people can make use of unusual resources that others might dismiss as leftovers to be ignored. Creative people can also often see the larger picture, the far reaching consequences of a given solution or unaddressed problem. So often instead of asking "why", they ask "why not." And that opens up a new world of ideas.
Case in point, early in the spring we realized a need for a new department at SpiderOak. There was an obvious internal hire for the job, but their current department was already down one full-time employee and it seemed unreasonable to expect that team to further function without a product expert. The obvious solution was to hire outside the company for the new job in order to maintain a product expert within the understaffed department. With a heavy sigh, the company got ready to do that. Until someone spoke up. "But we have a former product expert who *can* step in."
Wasn't that person.... you know... busy?
Isn't everyone at a small company?
In a traditional company, generally when someone is promoted onward and upward, it's often considered a non-starter to ask them to resume prior tasks or responsibilities. But what happened for us was that the product expert heard about the trouble, and showed up at the meeting ready to take over before being asked. Their only feedback on being asked to pick up their old mantle was minor aggravation that they hadn't been spoken to sooner. And we, as a company, are reminded of the tendency for creative people to place the overall outcome at the forefront. The job isn't about roles, it's just about getting in there and finding a way over, under, or through. If that means learning new skills, picking up and dusting off old ones or inventing a new tool, then it does. Crossing the finish line will almost assuredly open more interesting doors for the future, and we've found creative people love the idea of what is yet to come.
So, creative = faster results?
Yes, but not from day one, hour one, moment one. It's safe to say a creative solution tends to show to advantage later in the game. A truly focused worker, the sort of person who likes to be pointed at a task and demolish it in short order (John Henry, for example) is a lot faster than a team that is spending the bulk of their day brainstorming, not toiling. Anytime creative problem solvers are put to task, we have to create a smart solution that isn't just faster than the average railroader – we need to create a solution that is faster than John Henry. Because we are going to have to put John Henry to task making his replacement, and thus, lose his prowess in the meantime. Smart solutions which remove toil and grind from the equation may even take several lightning-fast full-time employees off the line during implementation. This can be incredibly stressful at the time, before we've seen just how well our new solution works, but we've found that usually, when we take time to implement a "smarter" solution that we quickly make up lost time after the fact directly because of the implemented solution. And then we just keep gaining extra bandwidth as we both understand how to use the solution better and come to trust it enough to rely on it more heavily. If we view our progress as a race, we usually spend the first half behind, and then catch up and sprint away in the last furlong.
Creative can't be the only criteria.
That's true. Sometimes you only really need one person in a problem space, or if you need two, you need to choose two people who complement each other, or ground each other, instead of winding each other up. There's also the reality that creativity doesn't solve everything and sometimes it's critical for creative folks to buckle down and dig into work using tried and true methods. That's why creativity isn't the only thing we assess when hiring – we still look at productivity, drive, and past performance. Ideas can't take flight without work and we know that. But work can't take flight without creativity, and we know that too.
Every creative person needs tools and training to give themselves the means to move forward on those wonderful ideas, and the dedication and discipline to work through dead ends and failures to have that Eureka! moment. Oddly enough, though creativity and discipline are often seen as opposite ends of a spectrum, productive creative people require a lot of discipline. Writing a book doesn't happen by accident, cooking delicious food from scratch requires dedication to kitchen chemistry in the face of failures, and robots that can take over the world can't be built overnight. (We're kidding about the robots. Maybe.) Pushing through creative failures to reach a place of competence, let alone excellence, requires intense drive and curiosity (that's another trait we love.) When we interview someone, we definitely talk about their creative output, not just their process and energy. Output is what shows us they have drive and discipline. We know that someone who can achieve these things has made sacrifices and choices that were tough, but ultimately ended up working for them.
We've found that it's critical to not just talk about the process they would use to make decisions, or how they might approach a problem that hasn't been broken down yet, but to also take the the final and equally important step to ask about the creative solution they may have in mind. How they'd implement a solution and how they'd evaluate that solution. When they might throw in the towel if they'd taken on something that couldn't be done with the given resources, or just wasn't ripe for being solved. Which problems they prioritize and how. What resources they imagine may come into play.
A technically proficient and creative employee once accidentally built a popular tool by total mistake while vacationing on the beach. It wasn't the tightest code. It probably took longer to build than strictly necessary. But the technical proficiency allowed the idea to come to fruition. And then, later, that person became bored and went on to do other things. And that's the big catch – we quickly learned from that situation that creative people need creative outlets that use their best skills. They need to face down and solve problems that require smart input, not just more hours, more toil, more intensity. And they need to see their ideas come into being. In short, it's in our best interests to start harnessing that creative power and focusing it on high-value problem spaces as soon as possible. But then we also need to make sure we keep finding problem spaces and new challenges for them to approach, consider and solve.
Come to find out, we actually need to identify their problem space and future challenges before they even apply.
Hiring creative staff starts the moment we envision a new role
When we recognize a need for a new role at SpiderOak, we always think about the day-to-day chores that person will take on. That's pretty standard. But we also dedicate time to determining what we believe the ideal candidate will create for the company, or improve for the company during their time here. We always want to be able to envision a creative project in the future of a role, even if it's not a role that requires creativity at the onset.
Our experience tells us that when hiring creative people, we need to be able to discuss the pre-defined juicy problem space with potential candidates to find out how those candidates will sink their teeth in, and how they best define working smarter with the available resources. Not only does this allow the creative candidate an opportunity to display their problem-solving process, it lets them define if our problem space is of interest to them and if they want to work with the restrictions we necessarily have. It helps us understand if there's enough for them to sink into, or just one bite for them.
Simply put, it makes much more sense to discuss the problem space that they will take ownership of than merely review theories about how they might apply their creative process to a theoretical problem. Specifically hiring with this in mind changes how we hire, and how we advertise our opportunities.
Hiring creative staff makes a difference in how we present ourselves
We generally think that highly creative, highly motivated people don't want to work someplace that doesn't specifically advertise both that they need it and foster it, so we go all out in our postings. Not only do we specifically say in our postings that we need creative minds, we play right to it. We tell potential hires that we fully support them in having and engaging in creative hobbies and they can expect their coworkers to introduce them to a wide range of topics. It's right there in our boilerplate. We feel like this approach of acknowledging our own quirkiness, showing support for theirs, tells people that not only do we say we value creativity, we walk the walk to foster it, support it, and implement the fruits of creative labor. We feel that this clearly advertises our intentions to the creative people we want to interview and hire.
But the job posting isn't the only way we signal our value set to potential new employee.
When new hires dig a little deeper, they'll find that this blog has many, varied voices. Avatars range from the highly professional headshot, to the amusing meme. Furthermore, this blog shines equal amounts of light on the defined, rote processes at our company, and also the new and exciting things we are doing at our company. These little details matter when we're working hard to find our newest teammate. We know that if they see creativity in the job posting, but not in our blog or on our website that they will turn away. There must be a creative thread that flows throughout how we interact with our wider audience before a candidate ever interviews with us.
Hiring creative people is about the direction and mission of the entire company. Creative people can't just live in an isolated department, or even be the token creative on the team. SpiderOak has taken an unabridged systematic approach to hiring, employing and making good use of creative types in order to attract more creative talent, and better harness that creative energy to demolish problems and build solutions. In our quest to acquire more creative people, we've incidentally become more flexible as a company, lost some of our siloing as people across teams share interests outside of work, and even become more diverse. Creativity has benefits outside of our stated problem space that have been good to us.
So dream big out there – and consider dreaming big with us!