How to Make Better Hires: Do You Go for Creative Thinking, or Job Skills?

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Sep 20, 2010

OK, so I am stealing a story I read about 15 years ago in an airline magazine (If anyone out there recognizes it and can help me attribute this, please let me know!)

Here is the story – This was a science class and there was a homework problem which was the following: If you needed to find out the height of a tall building using only a barometer, how would you do it?

The “correct” answer involved measuring the air pressure at the top of the building and on the ground, and using the difference in air pressure to calculate the height of the building. Kids that used that approach and got the math right were marked correct and given full credit.

But there were two other answers that stood out to me, that the teacher marked wrong, with no credit. I would have marked these correct and given these two students a job!

The first “wrong” answer

One student said he would take the barometer to the top of the building, drop it off, count how many seconds it takes to hit the ground, and calculate the height based on the time of the fall.

This is probably at least as accurate an answer as using the air pressure-based approach.

The second “wrong” answer – even better!

This student said, I would find the general manager of the building and say to him. “If you tell me how tall this building is, I will give you this barometer.” – Fantastic!

Not only did this solution meet the requirements of solving the problem, it was likely to give a far more accurate answer than the correct answer based on air pressure!

What a shame these two students were marked wrong. These are precisely the kind of creative thinking skills that help people solve important problems when the by-the-book way does not work.

Be careful what you ask for

I have made many hiring mistakes by looking for job skills — by keeping my interview only to the specifications of what needed to be done by the person in the next six to 12 months.

People would come in with very impressive experience and just the right skills to do the job that needed to be done right now. These hires are so tempting because you can see how they will immediately take some pain away.

But, what about when the job changes?

But more often than not, when the world changes around them, they get stuck. They don’t adapt easily. They need to find another job that matches their skills vs. being able to step up to do the new job that needs to be done.

Hire Fast Learners

The most valuable hires are the ones that can do the job today, but also can learn and adapt.

You are far more likely to hire a star if you ask questions that get at how the person thinks, and hire creative thinkers that are fast learners.

In your interview process you need to try and assess how much potential the person has to learn, and judge how fast they will grow. People with the most room for growth and the most acceleration (smarts and ambition) are your best hires.

This approach is valuable from hiring summer interns to top executives. I have used it at every level, once I learned that sticking to the job spec doesn’t work very well.

Some approaches…

  1. Puzzles: Actually give someone a puzzle to solve. Some people will get annoyed and refuse to engage, some will give up very quickly, and others will visibly start thinking and working it out. They will tell you how they are thinking about approaching the problem. They will ask you more questions about it. Hire the person who is doing something with the problem.
  2. Stories: Ask for stories about how the world was different when they first got into a job compared to how it is now. What did they think needed to be done? What new ideas did they come up with? What changes did they drive? If they just did the job as-is for a few years, and did not grow the responsibility or usefulness of their role, they are not a top hire.
  3. Actual Problems: Tell them a situation that you are facing that needs a solution. Ask them to talk through how they would approach it. The ones that say, “I don’t know yet, I’d need to get into the job first,” are not your top people. The ones that ask a bunch more questions and say, “Of course I’d need to listen and learn more, but from what I know right now this is what I think”… and start offering insights, have stronger creative thinking skills.

Your ideas?

If you have used some great questions, puzzles, problems or other approaches to learn more about your candidates creative thinking, and learning skills, and are willing to share them with us, please leave a comment.

This article was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog.