Putting a Giraffe in the Fridge – The Power of Ridiculous Interview Questions

The problem with interviews

Okay, we’ve all been there: sitting in a job interview (on either side of the table—it doesn’t really matter) and we’re thinking, “Do these questions really highlight the skills and qualities needed to be successful in this job?”

If you’re the one doing the hiring you’re also thinking, “How can I find the best employee and not just the best interviewer?” If you’re the candidate, you’re thinking, “How can I show them I’m exactly what they’re looking for without sounding like I’m telling them what they want to hear?”

Here is the crux of the problem: the skills needed to make a good impression in an interview are rarely the skills needed to do the job. For example, if you’re interviewing for a management job, it’s difficult to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills to lead, organize and make hard decisions when you’re just sitting answering questions that you had time to prepare for. If you’re doing the hiring, it’s hard to see the qualities and skills that fit your needs when the person you’re interviewing could be misrepresenting their skills and experience.

What you’re really looking for

As everyone who does hiring knows, what you’re looking for in a good employee is fit. You want someone who not only has the experience, but also the transferable skills to thrive in the position for which you are hiring. (If you want more on the importance of transferable skills check out previous article: Skills vs Experience) The real question is whether you trust people when they say they have the skills you are seeking. When applicants say they work well in stressful situations, you just have to take them at their word. There is really no opportunity to prove it, which is a huge disservice to both you and the candidate. Sure, there are options for you to give them an opportunity to prove themselves—like telling them they have thirty seconds to create a new jingle for your company’s flagship product while you dangle them out the window. But your lawyers will likely advise you against that. So what can you do?

Your main focus should be an applicant’s soft skills—over the education, over the experience, over the technical training. So the real question you should be starting with before you begin writing the interview questions should be, “What are the essential skills needed to be successful in this job?”

The right fit on soft skills is essential. A study by Watts and Watts (2008) indicated that hard skills contribute only 15% to one’s success, whereas 85% of success is due to soft skills. Another study by Klaus (2010) found that 75% of long-term job success depends on personal skills, while only 25% is dependent on technical knowledge.

So, again: How can the candidates prove it to you?

What a ridiculous question can do for you

Enter the ridiculous questions. Now, I may be getting off to a bad start by calling them ridiculous. I prefer the term “abstract”, however for the formal and rather stuffy setting of a job interview they are certainly unconventional— but that’s part of their brilliance. These kinds of questions fracture a candidate’s overly-polished and prepared responses and give you direct insight into the person behind the carefully crafted first impression.

The skills you need to ask ridiculous questions

Being able to get the information you need from one of these abstract questions takes some skill. Skilled interviews can infer parallels and patterns in people’s answers.   They can help you read the person and frame the kind of answer you are looking to get out of the question. It’s about analysis and synthesis: analyzing how people respond to your questions for deeper insight into their thinking process, and then synthesizing the meaning to establish proof of the skill you are seeking. Knowing the right questions to ask takes practice and you may have to dig deep into your memory, back to high school when you were analyzing poems about gardens and cloudy days, looking for the meaning and symbolism. I just hope you didn’t miss that day.

Questions and their intended results

Here are some sample questions and their potential benefits to give you an idea of how this works:

How many ways can you get a needle out of a haystack?

This question is great if you’re seeking people who can look at complex situations and assess possible solutions. Notice that the question asks how many ways?  This is important when you’re looking for someone to not get stuck on a single solution and who will look for new ways to get the job done. The answers you want to hear from positional “problem fixers” will demonstrate openness to looking at multiple angles, a logical and impactful problem-solving method, and creative approaches to challenges. I like to suggest this question to organizations looking for “problem fixers” such as Economic Developers, Career Counsellors, Auditors, etc.

How would you explain Facebook to your Grandma?

This question focuses on attention to detail, patience and understanding the perspective of the customer. It’s a good one to ask in environments with highly technical or industry-specific language where it’s easy to forget that clients may not be familiar with industry vocabulary or concepts. Your best front line people will be employees who can put themselves in the shoes of those you serve.  The answers you want to hear will be compassionate and easy to understand, using accessible language and thorough details.

Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

This was an internet favorite from a few years ago, but is still a great abstract question. If you’re hiring for a job that needs to take theoretical, hard-to-visualize information and make it accessible, then this is an excellent question. Being able to quickly respond to a weird question like this can really show the processing speed of your applicant. Skills like being able to visualize complex verbal descriptions are a large part of many jobs like marketing, programming and customer service. The answers you want to this question are quick, logical and practical. This can also be a great way to access the sense of humor in a candidate if that’s needed for the job or team they would be joining.

Could be a game changer

This simple shift in the way you think about interviews can have profound effects on talent acquisition. I urge all my readers to put more weight on transferable and soft skills than on experience, because experience is not the same as quality of experience.  Soft skills can be taught (it’s my bread and butter) — meaning you can help shape the quality of a person’s experience to suit the needs of your company.  It’s a much larger investment, but it’s worth it.    

Before you interview applicants, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the skills you’re looking for in prospective employees. You’ll also need a strategy for discerning the presence of these skills during the course of the interview.  Asking ridiculous questions is one way to have job candidates demonstrate, rather than just talk about, having the skills you’re seeking.


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