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Hiring Cheats: The Proper Use of Ridiculously Hard Interview Questions

Hiring Cheats: The Proper Use of Ridiculously Hard Interview Questions

September 11, 2012
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You have to love the candidate who is "Good At Interviewing."

“So Taylor, do you see yourself as having any significant faults?”

“Well Scott, sometimes I just work too hard, sometimes 60 hours a week.”

At Starsys, such a canned response led to this: "Imagine yourself in a rowboat…"

Ridiculously hard interview questions are a powerful tool for drilling through image to what is beneath. Once we got the hang of how to apply them, they became a fail-safe method to quickly measure important attributes we were seeking.

By their nature, these questions push candidates into a process of discovery and problem solving while under pressure. Watching how they worked through the problems was far more telling than whether they arrived at the right answer.

Famous examples of RHIQs come from Google, Apple and Microsoft, such as “Why is a manhole cover round?” You might think that you succeed when you have the right answer – in this case, “So that it can’t fall into the hole.” But when it comes to RHIQs, an immediate right answer might actually count against you because it's about the process, not the answer.

The key to a great RHIQ is to pose a question for which the answer is not dependent on experience or education. The puzzles we presented seduced folks down a quick path to solution that led to a dead end, requiring a retreat and rethink of the problem. The best questions are just as tough (or easy) for a 10th grader as for a CEO, because they measured an individual's hard-wired attributes important for success.

Every company is different in what skills and values their employees need to thrive. The RHIQ gave us a window into both. In our case, we looked for:

  1. Personal transparency and self-confidence.
  2. Ability to learn from mistakes.
  3. Innate ability to problem solve.
  4. Strong performance under pressure.
  5. Intelligence.
  6. Thrives when challenged.
  7. Out of the box thinker.
  8. Belief that work can be fun.

In about five minutes the RHIQ shined a strong light on each of these attributes.  Picture yourself in an interview answering Taylor’s question:

“Imagine yourself sitting in a rowboat in a swimming pool. There is a ruler taped to the side of the pool that measures the depth and a bowling ball in the bottom of the rowboat. You note the depth of the pool and then pick up the bowling ball and drop it over the side where it sinks. Look at the ruler. What happened to the water depth?"

Think for 30 seconds about your answer (and shame on those tempted to cheat by scrolling down).

While asking the question, we would watch for the person’s reaction: Were they leaning in, looking forward to an unexpected turn in the interview; or were they a deer in headlights? The former was an indication of 1, 4, 6 and 8.

Nine out of 10 times folks either got their first answer wrong or clearly were guessing. The guessers got a short interview. The one in 10 that got it right usually paused first at the intuitive wrong answer, and then said, “Wait a minute….” before verbally walking through to the right answer on their own.

At some point they reached an “Aha!” moment. Working through this on their own to the right answer scored very high marks for 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. If they clearly enjoyed the process, we added 8.

Getting the answer wrong on a first pass didn't score against them. Instead, we would reframe the problem to give them more ammunition:

“Imagine the same situation, however the bowling ball is made of lead. You struggle to lift it, but manage to drop it into the water. Does the water level go up, down or stay the same?”

We watched to see if they recognized something might be amiss in their first answer. Seeing it would get high scores for 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. If they quickly brushed off their wrong answer and focused on getting it right they scored high on 2. Most candidates at this point found the right answer – "the water level goes down."

A quick response indicated an intuitive approach to problem solving. A longer response indicated an analytical approach. And if they still got it wrong at this point, they were less likely to be a fit for a technical role in the company.

This was only one, small element of our interview process, but it provided great insight early on that would help guide the rest of the interview.

So you want to give it go? Here is my "Hiring Cheats Guide to Ridiculously Hard Interview Questions":

1. Look for RHIQs that do not require special expertise or intelligence to solve. Noticing the interaction as you work with them to solve the problem is more telling than the "right" answer.

2. Plagiarize. Plenty of these puzzles are already there for you to use. Try googling “interview puzzles” or “Microsoft interview questions.” Or start with the RHIQs we used.

3. Avoid Mensa IQ puzzles. “What number comes next in the sequence 10, 9, 60, 70, 66?” may identify brilliant out of the box thinkers but little else. Similarly avoid puzzles that are only solved by an epiphany: “A man is pushing his car to a hotel and loses his fortune. What happened?" (Answers to both of these questions, reportedly used by Google, can be found below.)

4. Identify what aptitudes you are looking for, and how the question – and your guidance – will make these visible.

5. Establish a baseline. Have a handful of current employees, friends and family try the test and notice how they do and how this correlates with who they are.

6. Listen carefully to responses. Remember you're looking for how they behave when they're challenged.  

7. Find a good RHIQ and stick with it. The more candidates that answer the same RHIQ, the more data you add to your baseline, and the better you are able to correlate RHIQ performance with performance in your company.

8. Apply broadly. The RHIQ we used was a great tool for vetting engineers but also was effective for technicians, quality control, supply chain management and support staff.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes. I’ll close with the other RHIQ that we used. One hint: the problem yields to a logical approach until you get to the last, final trick. You will know when you get there.

You are a product manager for a company that makes desk calendars. Your boss comes in with two wooden cubes with blank faces and a marker. He says that he saw a desk calendar comprised of two cubes on a tray with a single digit on the face of each cube. By orienting the cubes on the tray, every day of the year from 01 to 31 could be represented. He asks you to make a quick prototype by writing a single digit on each face of the cube. What digits do you put on each face of each cube?

(Previous answers: 1-Each number has an increasing number of letters when spelled; the next number should have eleven letters. 2-He is playing Monopoly.)

Scott Tibbitts is the founder and former CEO of Starsys Research and a nationally recognized speaker on entrepreneurship and legendary corporate cultures. In 1988, he approached NASA with an invention made from hardware store parts. Starsys became a world leader in spacecraft devices, with products on 250 spacecraft and an unprecedented 100% success record. Scott is the co-founder of eSpace: The Center for Space Entrepreneurship, the only congressionally funded aerospace incubator, and is currently working with telecom providers to deploy an invention that prevents texting while driving.

To schedule speaking engagements visit www.entrepreneursprison.com. Connect with Scott at scotttibbitts.tumbler.com or on Twitter @scotttibbitts.

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