In today’s business landscape, smaller companies regularly disrupt larger companies because they bring less baggage to the table—less legacy thinking, fewer cumbersome protocols and systems and—most importantly—less fear of failure. Fundamentally, they are looking ahead to the future and both imagining and embracing the possibilities, rather than protecting established turf. Key to that mindset is the same thing that is key to success more generally: people. Enterprises that want to safeguard against such disruption and become disruptors in their own right can do so by reinventing how and who they hire.
Let me be frank: Domain expertise among job candidates is overrated and, in many cases, can be detrimental to innovation. By hiring leaders without domain expertise in your industry, you can break your company’s cycle of incremental advances and transport it to a higher plain of innovation.
When New Minds Tackle Old Problems
It’s become commonplace for HR specialists and hiring managers to gravitate toward candidates who have the deepest experience in specific industries when filling a vacancy, often by selecting or even actively poaching employees from their competitors. It’s an understandable compulsion. After all, particularly in tech-driven industries, the learning curve can be steep, and companies want someone who can “hit the ground running.” But if you hire someone for their ability to drop into your organization and immediately keep pace, they will do just that. Your company’s day-to-day operations might not miss a beat, but your organization will miss a massive opportunity to hear new ideas and gain a fresh perspective on the direction of your company and products.
Companies that compete in a given industry are typically trying to solve similar problems both internally and for customers. Over time, companies and their products become commoditized because the same people keep looking at the same problems and suggesting the solutions they’ve devised and implemented elsewhere. Once the established “experts” in a given field decide that a given problem has been “solved,” innovation ceases. But as we all know, there’s more than one way to solve a problem. There needs to be someone in the room who is constantly willing to break things that other people have fixed already. The biggest benefit of this constant rethinking is that customers will always get an easier-to-use, more-efficient and simpler product.
When a company (and even an industry at large) falls into a pattern of always hiring people with domain expertise, products start to look remarkably similar. More importantly, so do the customer experiences that surround them. It takes a truly fresh eye—an industry outsider—to uncheck the “solved” boxes and propose the kind of outside-in thinking that can catapult a company ahead of the competition, both from a product and experience standpoint.
Take Tesla, for example. Elon Musk’s automotive mega-disruptor didn’t get where it is today by hiring automotive executives. Instead, it brought in talent from giants like Apple and Virgin America, where product innovation and customer experiences have historically blown those of the stagnant auto industry out of the water. These outsiders didn’t come together to build another car. They came together to rethink what a car should be and how the process of buying and owning it should work. Rather than anchoring in the past, they looked toward the future, decided where they wanted to be, and set their sights accordingly. And without a chorus of “but this is how we’ve always done it” ringing in their ears, they made that future a reality.
Putting Non-Domain Expertise at the Heart of Your Innovation
If you want to bring in non-domain experts to elevate your company’s products and customer experiences, you need to work with your executive team to reinvent what the notion of “qualified” means within your organization. Putting this hiring strategy into practice requires the following.
Tear up current job descriptions and postings. Companies need to identify the key roles within their organizations where fresh eyes, unbiased by legacy industry knowledge, can have the greatest impact on their current trajectories. These roles—typically executive and managerial ones—are where you need to strip out any same-industry experience requirements that might have crept in over the years. What you want to look for instead are smart, fearless individuals with a demonstrated track record of breaking molds and inspiring the people around them. These individuals are just as eager to talk about what they learned from their failures as they are to tout their successes.
Balance perspective and skills. Hiring out-of-domain experts is a way of blowing up legacy mindsets within your business—but you don’t necessarily want to blow up the business itself. You still need a balance of people with industry experience to put visions into action and advise on technical ramifications. (Tesla, after all, couldn’t build a car if it employed zero people who know how cars work.) So be smart about where you hire for breadth of view versus depth of skill. The balance will look different for every organization, but ideally every team will possess people with both vision and know-how.
Create an environment of fresh challenges. When you hire someone with out-of-domain expertise, their cycle of learning begins. Within a couple of years, they become domain experts in their own right. But that doesn’t mean you need to be constantly churning managers and executives in order to maintain momentum and fresh perspectives. Natural vacancies that arise in your organization will provide continual opportunities to bring in new non-domain perspectives, but you also need to be continually challenging your existing team to tackle fresh challenges. If you have the same people solving the same problems that they were solving five years ago, something has gone awry.
As a part of embracing a future-focused, out-of-domain approach to team building, be sure you’re challenging your teams on a continual basis. Reconfigure teams and reassign projects in a way that ensures fresh eyes are always being put on old problems. You can support this culture of constant reconfiguration in your hiring processes by looking for people who express discomfort about getting comfortable. These are the individuals who not only won’t object to regular shakeups, but actually welcome them. And these are also the people who will help your organization move beyond incremental progress to true reinvention.
As Chief Product Officer, Rohan Chandran oversees Data Axle’s products, technology, and data, with a view towards creating increasingly valuable solutions for our clients and partners. His teams are responsible for product management, design, engineering, analytics and data science, and IT & data operations as he leads the evolution of Data Axle’s product suite.