MaRS Discovery District • Toronto, ON

Hiring for Innovation: Finding Employees Who Thrive in the 21st Century


In a rapidly changing world of work – one where employees must quickly adapt to the demands of the future – hiring practices are also evolving. 21st Century employers are struggling to develop new assessment techniques to test for the skills they value the most. In a recent Wired Magazine article, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, stated that, “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.” These statistics are from the last century and we are still not caught up. In 2020 the top 3 job skills are projected to be complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. With school systems whose primary focus still remains the 3 R’s, how do we find recent graduates who strongly display the interpersonal and problem solving skills that make them valuable employees? We can’t rely on the HR practices of the past to hire our future workforce.

Resumes and GPAs are good indications of a candidate’s ability in math and literacy, but these documents are almost useless in gauging a person’s aptitude in the difficult-to-test social and emotional skill set. Google, who historically relied heavily on test scores in the hiring process, has abolished this type of screening, and has even reopened and reevaluated previously overlooked applications in their search for new talent. “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPA’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless… We found that they don’t predict anything.” Not only are marks useless in determining a candidate’s potential, there is a negative correlation between people who achieve good grades and their ability to innovate. Skills like abstract problem solving are valuable in the real world but don’t necessarily help students learn facts and score highly on multiple-choice exams. On top of that, “college-going students with innovation intentions may be more likely to approach their education as a means to discover new ideas, wanting more out of the experience than a series of external valuations in the form of grade point averages.” Because our education systems have been slow to equip students with the applicable skills that make them valuable hires, HR departments have had to go above and beyond in their vetting process. Companies, especially those working in the innovation space, have found success experimenting with creative solutions to evaluate these critical skills in their interview process.

Making strategic hiring decisions at Canada’s largest innovation centre, MaRS Discovery District, is challenging given the volume of positions and the creative skill set required for them. MaRS is a leader in the trend toward urban innovation districts, which allow entrepreneurs access to corporations, investors, mentors, university institutions and labs to test their concepts. Located in the centre of Toronto, MaRS brings together educators, researchers, social scientists, entrepreneurs, and business experts under one roof. Ensuring that this highly diverse ecosystem continues to learn and grow requires an equally diverse team of dynamic employees.

We sat down with MaRS HR Manager, Julia Scott, to discuss her insights from four trial sessions that incorporated the Empathy Toy into the interview process of hiring junior candidates.

Twenty One Toys:

What do you identify as some of the key skills for a thriving 21st Century workforce?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

Adaptability, resilience, clear communication, the ability to collaborate.

Twenty One Toys:

Why do you think these skills are more important now than ever before?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

The nature of work has changed. We’ve moved away from manufacturing and roles [that are fulfilled] by a single contributor. A lot of our work now is with other people, not things. So, we must have the ability to connect, take cues, seek clarification, and collaborate [if we want] to create new things. This is especially important in a place like MaRS which is a culture focussed on innovation. So for us, the magic of innovation is the ability to draw things out of other people’s experience and collaborate with them to refine those ideas. That doesn’t happen with one person in a room by themselves – it really requires skills of being able to hear things, refine, communicate well, ask questions, reset, and recalibrate. Sometimes that means starting from scratch and being resilient to move forward with a new strategy or approach.

Twenty One Toys:

What are the challenges that HR departments face when hiring for these skills?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

People in job interviews tend to say things like “I’m a great communicator” or “I really love collaboration” but it can be difficult to test for that in an interview format.

The nature of work has changed … we must have the ability to connect, take cues, seek clarification, and collaborate [if we want] to create new things.

Twenty One Toys:

How have you incorporated the Empathy Toy into the interview process at MaRS?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

We spend about 30 minutes of the second interview using the Empathy Toy. We play the game twice. During the first game, the hiring manager provides instruction to the candidate. It’s interesting to see how the candidate receives instruction from their potential manager. For example, do they wait and listen first before they start to move the pieces, or do they just launch right into it and start shoving things together? Are they asking for clarification?

After the first game, the candidate has an opportunity to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Then, they play one more game. This time the candidate provides the instructions to the hiring manager.

In that second game we are looking to see if the candidate can identify the key lessons that will help them improve. In one case, the first game was very challenging for the candidate as a result of vague descriptions. [The candidate] kept saying that the pieces “fit together” without exploring or attempting to explain more specifically how they fit together. After removing the blindfolds, they saw that the pieces slide together in a groove on the pieces. However, this insight did not get applied in the next game. This was really telling for me – [the candidate] had the opportunity to learn from something that went badly, but didn’t take it.

Twenty One Toys:

How do you measure the outcomes of the Empathy Toy session?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

One thing we have tried is timing both of the games played during the interview. We haven’t been setting a time limit on the game – we’re more interested in measuring the change in how long each game takes. The time has been a really good indicator of the quickness to proficiency in communication style of the candidate.

I also act as an observer for all the games, so I am able to take notes on what happened. This observation has been pretty open-ended so far. One thing I’m looking for is how well the two players take cues from each other. For example, how do the players arrive at a common, codified language for the pieces? It’s also interesting to see how the candidate deals with frustration when things aren’t going very well.

On one hand, I’m looking for any red flags that could affect how this person may interact with the team, should they get the job. On the other, I’m trying to get a sense of what to expect from that person’s communication and collaboration style so we know how to engage with them, how to manage them and how to communicate with them from the first day.

Twenty One Toys:

Are there any unexpected insights that emerged from running these sessions?

Julia Scott – Human Resources Manager, MaRS Discovery District:

The game actually led to insights, not just about the candidate, but about the people doing the hiring as well. It was fascinating watching my colleagues deal with the challenges of the game. It revealed that there could be opportunities to try some communication and collaboration exercises with our own staff. In fact, I plan on using it for a team building activity for our HR team in the fall.

According to The World Economic Forum, we are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution – a technical revolution set to fundamentally change the way we live and work. In this future, hiring a candidate who will not only excel at current job requirements, but also one who possesses the skills to adapt and grow alongside a company, is challenging but imperative. This is especially true when we consider the cost of a bad hire. In a 2014 study, 41% of companies estimated that a bad hire cost them at least $25,000 and 25% reported the cost at over $50,000. These costs are not just monetary. “There are direct and indirect ways companies say they’ve paid for hiring the wrong employee.” These include: lost worker productivity, lost time and expense due to recruiting and training another worker, negative impact on employee morale, and negative impact on client solutions.

For entrepreneurs, tech companies, and social innovators, the philosophy “hire slow, fire fast” has ballooned into more than a trend. Considering the cost of a bad hire, maybe we should hire smartly instead – this means hiring people that we can depend on long-term to manage change and thrive in growth. Tom Gimbell of Fast Company believes that smart hiring means designing interview conditions “to catch the candidate off guard and gauge how they handle uncomfortable situations.” These scenarios create opportunities for a candidate to demonstrate “flexibility, openness and the ability to think on their feet,” key indicators of resilience in a changing professional landscape.

Implementing hiring practices that are as innovative as the employees we are searching for is possible. When done smartly, the result is a generation of new hires not only with the ability to adapt to shifting industries, but who also inspire and drive future change.

Start building empathy, innovation, and collaboration in your team with the Empathy Toy

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