Inventing jobs that don’t yet exist as a vehicle for attracting and retaining talent

By merging understanding of future employment trends with an innovative idea generation current and prospective employees can invent careers that literally ‘do not yet exist’, says Bryan Mattimore

Some years ago, I was asked to deliver a keynote speech on creative thinking to several hundred artists, graphic designers, copywriters and executives (including the CEO) at the American Greetings Company. It was a tremendous honour because it was hard to imagine a company where creativity was more essential to a company’s survival than one that produces literally thousands of ‘new products’ – greeting cards of course – every year.

As I walked into American Greetings’ corporate headquarters in Cleveland Ohio, I couldn’t help but notice behind and to the side of the receptionist’s desk, large glass display cases filled with an eclectic assortment of artistic creations: paintings, sculptures, wood carvings, needlepoint, clothing, jewellery, you name it. I asked the receptionist about the work and she said, ‘Oh yes, these were all created by our employees. These are some of their hobbies.’

I was blown away; not only by the quality of the work, which was universally high, and in some cases breathtakingly beautiful, but rather with the company’s leadership. Not only was American Greetings acknowledging that their employees had artistic lives and creative hobbies outside of work… but that they were willing to celebrate them! A less open, and less secure organisation might simply have had photos of the founders, or samples of their current new products.

Contrast this with an experience I had some years later. I was facilitating a day-long creativity training and customer experience workshop in Washington, DC with one of the US Government’s largest agencies. As I often do to kick off the training, I created an original icebreaker.

‘Tell me about your fantasy job… and it doesn’t even have to be realistic. If some day you’d like to be a tour guide on the planet Mars, let’s hear it!’

Well, the employees in the session loved this icebreaker. They had fun with it, proposed some highly imaginative fantasy jobs, and in the process revealed something personal about themselves… all important considerations in a successful icebreaker.

Turns out the boss was less than enthused with the exercise than his direct reports.

‘These people are already happy in their jobs,’ he said. ‘Why would you ever have them think there could be a better job that what they have now?’  

Oh boy.

Fast forward to January 2020… and an in-person creativity training and problem-solving workshop I was asked to lead for a famous on-line retailer and 50 of their global recruiting managers.

Since we were in the world of talent recruiting, I thought it might be fun to create a ‘job-related’ icebreaker. Even though I had never again tried the ‘fantasy’ job exercise since the debacle with the US government agency, I thought, ‘What the heck, it’s a different world now, maybe it’ll work this time around.’ I ran it by the self-confident senior manager who had hired me to lead the workshop, and she immediately approved it.

Huge hit… Smiles, laughs, good natured kidding, hoots and hollers when a particularly creative – or outlandish – fantasy job was shared. These fantasy jobs included: producer of horror-genre video games, international restaurant tester, gypsy, working for doctors without borders, someone who makes furniture from recycled materials, decorator and ‘flipper’ of houses, and full-time puppy foster parent.

Like the leadership of American Greetings, this online-retail recruiting manager recognised that seeing talent as ‘cogs’ in the organisation’s larger corporate wheel with little or no consideration for the uniqueness and passions of each individual was simply not a viable strategy. As one corporate recruiting specialist put it, even with the recent downsizing in many industries because of Covid-19, ‘the war for talent is over… and talent won.’ Organisations need to continuously create working environments – whether in-person, virtual, or some combination of both — that attract and inspire the best talent.

Toward this end, corporate leaders need a compelling vision and mission that make clear how that organisation will ‘make the world a better place.’ This has never been more important than today, as millennials and Gen X-ers increasingly are demanding a job ‘with meaning.’

Another key to talent attraction and retention is to create a ‘culture of openness and creativity,’ where all employees are encouraged and empowered to create new ideas. Having this opportunity will help every employee meet their inherent need for continuous personal growth and self-actualisation.

Championing creative contributions – at all levels from all employees – also means accepting, and indeed encouraging diversity both at the individual and the team level. Psychological preference and behavioural assessments such as Myers-Briggs, and DISC can help with this… but there are other tools as well. Here’s one I’ve had great success with, not that different from the fantasy job icebreaker, that hiring managers might try.  

My friend Chris Bishop, a former digital futurist at IBM and now career consultant, and I have created a workshop we call Inventing Future Careers. By merging Chris’ in-depth understanding of future employment trends with my firm’s idea generation processes we help current and prospective employees invent careers that literally ‘do not yet exist.’ How? We use a word-combination creative technique called semantic intuition that I’ve adapted from my corporate new product innovation work. It’s a simple three-step process.

Step 1

Create examples for each of the following three categories: ‘Leading-Edge Technologies,’ ‘Industries,’ and ‘Job Titles/Competencies.’

So, for ‘Leading-Edge Technologies,’ examples might be:

IOT (internet of things), cryptocurrency, quantum computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, reusable rockets, implantable chips, nanomachines, solar energy, wind farms, fusion reactors, wired fabrics, etc.

Some ‘Industries’ could be:

Entertainment, healthcare, financial services, travel and transportation, tourism, legal, education, manufacturing, technology, fashion, energy, telecommunications, logistics, communication, marketing, security

And finally, ‘job titles/competencies’ could include:

Curator, manager, director, strategy consultant, sales director, analyst, customer service rep., hacker, financial advisor, commentator/reporter, designer, coordinator, repair leader, writer, biologist

Step 2

Have the prospective or current employee select words they have an interest in from each of the three lists… and then randomly combine them to create word triads that ‘name’ a new career.

So, for instance, a possible combination could be: ‘Implantable Chips, Healthcare, Strategy Consultant.’

Step 3

Use these word combinations to imagine a new job, field of study, or career path.

The combination: ‘IOT (Internet of Things), healthcare, and strategy consultant,’ might suggest a career as ‘a strategic business advisor to a company in the healthcare industry on how to exploit IOT advances to drive new product and service innovations.’

Much like the fantasy job icebreaker, this technique can help HR managers and department leaders identify the unique interests, passions, and skills of prospective talent… which can then inform the creation a customised learning and self-actualisation plan for each employee. It will also strongly send the message to the entire organisation how important it is – both for talent recruiting and retention — to support ‘a culture of creativity and openness.’

The ‘inventing future careers’ exercise can also help HR managers anticipate the organisation’s long-term talent needs based on the wide variety of newly imagined future jobs.

And finally, it can even be a source of inspiration for new products and services the organisation might one day offer.

Bryan W Mattimore is Cofounder and ‘Chief Idea Guy’ of the Growth Engine Company, a 20-year old innovation and creativity training agency based in Westport, Connecticut.

In his marketing consulting career, Bryan has managed over two hundred successful innovation projects, leading to over $3 billion in new sales for one-third of the Fortune 100 companies. Bryan’s three best-selling books on ideation and innovation process include Idea StormersHow to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs and 21 Days to a Big Idea.

A cum laude graduate of Dartmouth with a major in psychology, he is also an innovation and marketing instructor for Caltech, and on the Board of Advisors of the Global Innovation Institute.

This article is excerpted from the new book, Winning the War for Talent in the 2020’s, 11 Insights from the Global Institute for Thought Leadership

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