Microsoft is famous in the hiring world for using brainteasers to identify creative problem solvers as part of its interview process: How would you move Mount Fuji? How would you weigh a jet plane without scales? Which way should the key turn to unlock a car door? How do they make M&Ms? Why are manhole covers round rather than square?
Many other companies have started using similar puzzles. Some combine brainteasers with stress tests. One Wall Street investment bank begins interviews by brandishing an air pistol and inviting the candidate to play a game of Russian roulette. The idea behind all of the questions is to see how you deal with difficult situations and impossible questions.
Unfortunately, hiring brainteaser champions is not a guarantee that the person is creative or that they will help the company innovate. All it really proves is that the person knows how to deal with a brainteaser in a way that you find acceptable.
Tests – of all kinds - are popular for many reasons. Every company has to make hiring decisions. Popular companies deal with tens of thousands of applications each year. Various, mysterious, pseudo-scientific methods reduce that number before inviting candidates for interview. IQ tests don't measure creativity although there is correlation between creativity and intelligence.
Yet tests indicate only the ability to do a test. Resumes indicate only what someone says they know and what they say they have done. Interviews seem fatally flawed. Research has shown that people give the job to the same candidate after watching video of the first two seconds of an interview as interviewers did after spending an hour with the candidate. We stick with our snap judgements.
Far more important than what a person knows is how a person learns. What a person knows matters. You want experts, you want knowledge, but this should be taken as a given. If the person can't do the basics then you shouldn't hire them with the expectation that they can.
You need enough people in the company who can make whatever it is that you are trying to sell. The way that people have learned what they know and the way they intend learning what they will need to know in the future is the real difference between candidates. It's also the difference between companies. Learning new things is at the heart of innovation.
Evidence shows that innovation is a skill people can learn. It helps if candidates have already learned the basics. Asking someone how to design a new product is a better way of finding out their approach to innovation than asking them to fill in an aptitude test. Getting someone to work with existing employees to solve problems is a better way of finding out how they fit into the culture than judging them from across the table.
It also helps if you know how innovation works. If you understand the qualities needed for innovation then you can look for them. Are they curious? Are they obsessive? Are they pragmatic? Are they perfectionists? What products and companies do they admire? Can they take risks? Have they done anything exceptional? Can they communicate unreasonable ideas to a sceptical audience?
When you have sorted for basic skills, you could just close your eyes and pick applications at random. Don't worry about the ones you didn't hire. As the joke goes - no one wants to hire unlucky people!
The serious point is that if you hire at random you end up with a diverse mix of perspectives rather than a carefully selected demonstration of your prejudices and preferences.
So don't just hire for what they can do now or for what you need doing now. Things will change. Consumer tastes will change. The market will change. And if you have hired people for the future, people who can adapt to the future, or people who are already living for the future, then your company will change too.
There are many roles necessary to successful innovation. You don't want to hire half a dozen Steve Jobs or a room full of Richard Branson clones. You want people to experiment. You need people to take those experiments and kick the bugs out of them. Someone has to market whatever you build. Someone else has to pull the whole thing together. Each can be individually brilliant, but each also has to play their part in holistic, day-to-day, ordinary, extraordinary innovation.