12 Interview Questions to Set You Up for Success

By Scott Kirsner |  November 5, 2014

Maybe you are new in an innovation role, or working with a new CEO, business unit leader, or other senior executive. How do you ensure that what you’re doing aligns with their vision of innovation — and their expectations?

A long-time innovation leader from the financial services industry agreed to share with us — anonymously — the questions he uses in conversations with the people who sponsor or collaborate with the innovation team.

Success in a new position, or working with new partners inside the company, “requires that you understand the history and the culture of the organization,” he says, “or the point of view of the person you find yourself working with.”

The goal of the twelve questions, he says, “is to spend a little time defining what success looks like five years from now. Five years is almost unfathomable, especially when you have CMOs and CIOs and others in senior roles lasting 18 months. But successful innovation programs introduce systemic thinking at all levels of the organization.”

Our anonymous exec says that he typically sits down with both senior business unit leaders, as well as the primary innovation sponsor at a company and “conducts a 45-minute interview. They don’t necessarily know I have the twelve questions, but they know I have an interview guide. Very conversationally, we’d work through the questions in about 45 minutes or an hour.” Once he’d finished the conversations with all of the key players, “I’d put together a heat map of where we were seeing similar answers and differences. [See examples at right and below.] You could adjust the intensity of the colors in areas where there was alignment or concern, and that lets you see patterns where people aren’t aligned around similar expectations or definitions of what success looks like. And that heat map is what I’d take back to the CMO or the President, or whoever the primary innovation sponsor was, to discuss what to do about it.”

  1. Here are his twelve interview questions… along with four bonus questions if you’ve got extra time.
  2. Define innovation. What does innovation mean for our organization?
  3. Have we tried innovation before? How many times? Results?
  4. How are we at large projects? [Define “large” in your mind.] What percentage are successful?
  5. Do you think that we are better/worse than others in our industry at large projects?
  6. What causes us to fail? Which do I need to watch out for? Do we recover well from failure?
  7. There are 10 types of innovation [Prompt: explain Doblin’s model]. Which are most important for us?
  8. What does success look like?
  9. Who needs to be on the governance council?
  10. How should we engage employees in this process? [Range of employee involvement can be high at one extreme (all employees have a ‘voice’ and can submit ideas, review, and promote) to highly targeted (select employees are drawn in to solve problems and stay deeply involved through implementation).]
  11. What makes it difficult is it to introduce change into our systems and processes?
  12. What products or services have we introduced that added 10 percent to revenues in 3-to-5 years? Why did they work?
  13. What are things that absolutely cannot happen out of this initiative?

Bonus Questions 

  • What are our strategic advantages?
  • Who do you think is innovative?
  • Who would you want to use as a model for our efforts?
  • If you were challenged to grow an extra 500 basis points over the next three years, what would you do? [Prompts: explain McKinsey granularity of growth model in plain English.]
  • Are there other growth initiatives that may conflict with our efforts? How should we manage these conflicts?

Here’s an example of what the resulting “heat map” can look like, along with notes about potential problem areas. The numbers at the top of the heat map correspond to individuals who have been interviewed; the labels at the left correspond, roughly, to the topics discussed in the first twelve questions above.