How many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?
And why are manhole covers round?
As well as innovating on technology and business models, companies like Google experimented with cryptic brain-teasers like these in their interviews.
Google ended up dropping these questions because the responses didn’t relate to job performance. Besides, once candidates shared the questions outside the company, you could learn the right answers verbatim, and the questions became irrelevant.
Not all of these riddles were necessarily designed to have correct answers. The intention is to see how you deal with unexpected questions and how you reason your way through them. They give an insight into how candidates tick. Like knowing when to use rough approximations (the golf-ball question) and when to use creative logic (round manhole covers can’t fall into the manhole).
Recruiters are always adopting new interview techniques to gather more insights into a candidate. A CV can tell you a lot about a candidate’s credentials and their ability to technically do a job. But an interviewer uses questions within questions to probe into a candidate’s character.
One technique brings in colleagues from different departments to the interview panel. We see this more and more in the renewable energy industry.
We often get feedback from candidates that someone unrelated to the division interviewed them and knew nothing about the position. And that’s the point. Candidates need to prepare for this type of interview. Interviewers want to assess their ability to ‘dumb-down’ and communicate concepts to uneducated audiences.
This is a skill set that you’ll need for sales, training and presentations. Frustration at these new practices only leads to poor interview performance and lower impact.
Being able to explain complex ideas in simple terms is more than a communication skill. It’s an indicator that you actually understand something. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman obsessed over his ability to distil physics using concepts that anybody can understand. It became his barometer for his own knowledge and he freely admitted when he didn’t understand complex concepts.
“I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else you’re more familiar with.”
– Richard Feynman on magnetism.
Cross-functional interviews look at things objectively. Bringing an accountant to interview an engineer brings a disinterested perspective. They’re less likely to have rapport just because they did their PhD at the same engineering school, or worked together before. It eliminates cronyism.
And when they’re not looking at technical skills, an interviewer can better assess a candidate’s values, temperament, and culture fit. Emotional intelligence is an important facet of hiring. It helps overcome the old trap where you hire for hard skills and fire for soft ones.
Some interviews involve peers and potential subordinates, as well as their bosses. It’s a good sign that the company values everybody in the organisation. They don’t let bureaucracy or hierarchy get in the way of great people doing great work at all levels.
According to one worker, again from Google,
“In every interview I’ve ever had with another company, I’ve met my potential boss and several peers. But rarely have I met anyone who would be working for me. Google turns this approach upside down. You’ll probably meet your prospective manager and a peer, but more important is meeting one or two of the people who will work for you. In a way, their assessments are more important than anyone else’s—after all, they’re going to have to live with you. We find that the best candidates leave subordinates feeling inspired or excited to learn from them.”
How to Prepare for a Cross-Functional Interview
Interviews should be challenging and test candidates with real-world dynamics. They’re designed that way.
Whether it’s a left-field question, an unconventional setting, or a panel made up of different departments and seniority, you should expect to be surprised in an interview. The key is to take it in your stride.
The most critical thing you can practice to prepare for a successful interview is your communication. Being able to simplify complex ideas is one of the strongest skills you can foster.
Practice by talking about your work with people outside of your domain. Talk to your kids. Write down your ideas and try to simplify them. Ask people to explain things back to you to make sure they understand and adopt their words and language.
Nobody ever complained that something was too simple to understand.