Why Hiring People Who Annoy You Helps You Innovate

ZestFinance CEO Douglas Merrill shares his 3 rules for keeping innovation alive.

Nearly 66% of companies on the Fortune 100 list in 1990 are not on the list some twenty-odd years later. You might ask, what is the reason for this? The fact is that while those companies were run, by and large, by competent and smart businesspeople, the odds are against them for one simple reason: They didn’t innovate and open themselves up to their next market.

Throughout my career, I’ve spoken to people around the world about the history of innovation--getting it right, and in some instances, getting it all wrong. When we talk about this concept of innovation, I’m almost always asked the same questions: Is there any way for large, established companies to innovate? How do companies find destructive innovation? The short answer is yes, but there are some distinct rules to follow when innovating an established brand, and/or starting fresh.

These questions always bring me back to three distinct rules that I’ve learned along the way. First, hire people who annoy you. Second, don’t copy, remake. Third, don’t create, listen.

1. Hire People Who Annoy You.
A lot of research shows that diverse teams tend to come up with a wider variety of answers, and, thus, are more likely to find the surprising winning idea. The converse is also true: If you build a team that looks alike, thinks alike, and wears the same shoes (pardon the pun), you will get groupthink and generate only one answer, and hope it’s the right one.

In my opinion, this is a recipe for disaster. So, how do you make sure you don’t have uniform teams? While almost all companies have some sort of diversity plan in place, sadly, many of them are just that, plans. I propose actions.

Social psychology has taught us that we tend to like people who are similar to us, and the higher the similarity, the more likable the person. This suggests a hiring strategy--hire people who annoy you. As long as you’re ensuring they are smart, the people who annoy you represent the diversity you and your company require.

2. Don’t Copy, Remake.
There is an entire cottage industry devoted to teaching you how to be innovative. This industry exists because it’s easy to be glib about innovation. You will hear that about everything, from the need for brainstorming to how key it is to give your employees free lunch.

Glib is easy, and, worse, compelling. These answers are glib because they point to some surface feature of a behavior. In other words, they tell you what was done, not why it was done. For example, at my company (and the previous one, Google) we provide lunch every day because it creates an easy place for introverts (i.e., engineers) to talk to other people about what they are working on and to get wildly divergent ideas. It’s not about the food, but about the conversation. And, of course, it amplifies the value of hiring people who annoy you, since lunch is a great place for views to get aired. Don’t copy the surface behavior--understand the goals, and do them in your context. In other words, given your culture and workforce, what’s the best way to ensure people who don’t directly work together talk to each other?

3. Don’t Create, Listen.
Finally, once you have hired people who annoy you to diversify your team, and you have found ways for them to talk to each other, you need something useful for them to do. You’re the key barrier to your organization’s innovation, because you are serious and you believe you know what your customers want.

However, the purpose of innovation is not simply to build something new, but to win new customers, new markets, or new products. While you think you may know what they want, in reality, you don’t. Rather, you knew what customers wanted back when the company started, but now the only people who really know what customers want are the customers.

So how do you find out what the customers want? My advice would be to nix the focus groups. While they’re generally not representative of your actual customers, it’s also true that humans can’t describe what they don’t know. Henry Ford (probably didn’t) say "If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, I’d have built a faster horse." His customers knew horses. They didn’t know cars. Or, at least, they didn’t know cars in a way they could talk about them.

In many cases, you can see what customers want by watching their behavior. For example, we recently optimized our website to make it mobile friendly. We didn’t do this based on our customers asking for it; rather, we identified the mobile need by looking at data around the 15% of customers who were interacting with our site on their mobile device. I believe that they didn’t ask, because they didn’t know we could build an application that would make their mobile experience markedly better.

This is an example of how we didn’t innovate just to innovate, but how we innovated to solve a customer problem.

While I doubt that following these three rules will guarantee your long-term survival and victory, I do know that ignoring them definitely increases your chances of failure.

--Author Douglas Merrill is CEO and founder of ZestFinance, a Los Angeles-based financial services technology company that uses big data to help make better credit underwriting decisions in order to provide credit alternatives to the underbanked. He was previously CIO and VP of Engineering at Google.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]

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15 Comments

  • Pankaj

    The Point One refers to Diversity (of thought process / different views) .. However, unfortunately most of the organisations have reduced it to a matric driven by no if women, diverse ethnicity etc  instead of creating teams of people with shared values and lots of different apraoches to solving customer issues. (copying what instead of why).

  • Dunstan Vavasour

    You miss the most important rule for innovation: allow failure.

    If you filter your development projects to ensure that they always deliver something profitable, you inevitable filter out the innovative. Obviously you don't want to pour squillions of pounds into a dead-end project, but people must be confident to try stuff which might or might not work.

  • AbhishekM

    A team member of mine annoyed our boss one fine morning. She was shown her way out by the lunch hour. On the other hand, our domestic helps annoy us so much, yet we can't fire them even in our farthest imagination!

  • Kim Gordon

    The suggestion to hire people who annoy you may be intended as flip and to generate discussion but it is simplistic and some people may be foolish enough to go and act on it.   You do NOT want to hire people that annoy you.   You want to hire really good people who think differently than you do and whose strengths complement the weaknesses in your existing team.   Sometimes the people who think differently than you will indeed be annoying but to use annoying as the hiring criteria is a recipe for failure.  You might as well use a random lottery to fill the position. to be successful you have understand the strengths and weaknesses of your existing staff or as Douglas writes understand the diversity of your people.  You need innovators, you need questioners, you need leaders to drive the process, and you need people to mind the finances and resources among others.   You have to understand what you have to know what you need.   To try and distill this down to hiring people who annoy you puts your future success into the arena of random chance and plain dumb luck if you succeed. 

  • Genevieve Fortin

    I'm sorry but I think you take #1 rule too literally. I think the author meant to stop hiring the same psychological profile over and over again in all the organization departments. I've seen so many times in my career - people in the marketing department with the same profile as people in the accounting department. Everbody with the same likes and dislikes. And truly, it didn't work either. 

  • Amanda Strungs

    How do you decipher the difference between annoying in a way
    that challenges you versus annoying in a way that disrupts your team?  Any tips for determining this in an
    interview? 

  • Anne

    In response to a comment below, I believe Mr. Merrill uses the term "annoying" loosely and to grab our attention (which it did). He is referring to people who challenge us to think differently, people who are not within our comfort zone. I don't believe he advocates hiring jerks. Bravo, Mr. Merrill. I concur.

  • Peter

    Annoying people doesn't mean creative, it means stubborn sometimes. I agree on diverse groups, different talents, with different background. But hiring annoying people, this HR does naturally. It can just make good people leave the company because they can't work with these people. It become less enjoyable and less productive. I like working with people with different backgrounds, but not annoying.

  • Berniemayall

    The drive to listen rather than replicate or create is sound. Innovation is cool, but it has to be anchored to purpose and consequence if it is to matter. It has to drop out of meaningful need and deliver meaningful results.

  • Lisa Kuhn Phillips

    me likey and lived it until it was time to move off the financial freedom bus traversing the midwest US. The vocal "1 off" fringe players who slay innovashun and status quoh no sometimes need to mix-it-up elsewhere:)

  • Patrick Wagner

    This is a great way to look at how some people and business avoid change / innovation in the way their run their business and their management of it.