Avoid “Culture Fit” If You Want Innovation

Some companies have started to hire only people who “fit” into their “culture,” according to an article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal. Innovation research shows that this is a horrible idea.

These companies have applicants do a “culture fit test” before they’re hired. For example, G Adventures has job candidates climb down into a play pit full of brightly colored plastic balls, and then play a “spin the wheel” game where they answer personal questions, in front of three current employees.

  • Salesforce.com has tried using “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate job finalists.
  • Zappos.com gives veto power to senior company veterans. They can reject a potential hire if they decide the candidate doesn’t fit in, even when the candidate is otherwise fully qualified.

The career website Beyond.com found “that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.” (If you’re not white and male, this probably isn’t a surprise. And you’re probably not excited by the idea of playing a spin the wheel game, with three white guys, in a pit full of balls.)

These practices block innovation. We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

If you want innovation, avoid culture fit!