Apply Lean Startup Ideas to “Failed” Candidates? Why Not?

-Johanna Rothman

You may think it’s difficult to find great people. You see people who’ve been laid off, or who have been out of work or who have been out of work for several years. Maybe you see candidates with look as if they’ve had months of work, not years of work on their resume. You might call it the “lean startup” approach to a career.

Can these people be any good for your organization?


The economy has not been kind to anyone in the last few years. You know some “failures”—people who were laid off more than once, or even fired. Am I actually suggesting you recruit these people?

Yes, I am. “Failed” candidates are not necessarily failures. Too often, they’ve been guilty of bad judgment in choosing employers, not in their work. You’ll need to think long and hard about the candidates, but looking for people who had trouble holding onto jobs or who have been out of the job market for a while might be a welcome source of candidates.

First, let’s look at why people are laid off or fired. Too often, it’s a culture clash—where the candidate didn’t fit the culture. Sometimes it’s not even a culture problem. If you’re looking a middle- or senior-level manager, a change in C-level management ripples down the management ranks—whether those managers were doing a great job or not.

And, if the organization transitioned to agile, the candidate may have been a manager with no job and no place to go. That’s where you can ask about where they did succeed.

Review a candidate’s resume and look for industries, companies, or environments similar to yours. Can the candidate point to a success on his or her resume? If so, consider a phone screen—that’s where you can ask more questions about their successes.

Try a question like this, “Tell me about a time you felt successful. What contributed to your success?” Be ready to ask follow-up questions.

Here’s an example from an interview I conducted a while ago. I asked a candidate the success question, and heard this answer. “A few years ago at XYZ, I worked for a manager whose group thrived on lots of dialogue—what they called constructive conflict. They were bought out by a larger company, and my original manager was fired. My new manager avoided conflict, and all of us who were big on transparency—we were all laid off.”

Hmm, a manager who likes transparency? I asked more questions, and it turns out, he had used iterations, worked by feature, and had a servant leadership approach to management. He was a great agile manager. Who knew?

Don’t assume someone who’s been laid off or fired is a failure. Too often, the most these candidates are guilty of is not seeing the future. Use your detective skills and delve into why people were laid off or fired. You may find perfect candidates, who will fit your organization to a T.

Johanna.RothmanJohanna Rothman consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. She has written over 100 articles and papers, maintains two blogs, and is a frequent contributor for Fast Company’s online career center, Software Development,, and She is also a sought-after speaker and teacher in the areas of project management, people management, and problem-solving.

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