What piano tuners and the art of estimating have to do with job interviews

One of the problems with job interviews is that they tend to select for the person who is best at interviews, rather than the person who is best for the job. 

Imaginative employers are now leaning towards job ‘auditions’. An actor or musician applying for a new role doesn’t answer questions about their acting or musical ability. They get asked to perform and they’re judged upon that, and this is what the job audition is all about.

For a sales role, this might mean asking the candidate to sell you a product. For a graphics designer, it might be to sketch out a logo based on your brief; or a mobile app screen mock-up if they’re a UI specialist; or a developer might be asked to write or debug a piece of code.

You can then discuss the idea they come up with and refine it. This process of iteration shows how well they communicate and take onboard criticism and other people’s ideas, which is an important skill.

Of course, some roles are more suited to audition than others, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon the audition technique. Instead, you can ask the candidate to do something that will require them to demonstrate the type of skills and thinking required for the role.

For example, when interviewing for project managers, having a candidate who can think on their feet and communicate clearly is vital, but how to test for this in an hour or less?

Using estimating questions in job interviews

My favourite solution is to ask an estimating question. The art of estimating is a great way to see how somebody’s mind works and how they approach a new problem.

Can they think laterally? Do they make and justify reasonable assumptions? Are they able to do some basic math off the cuff to quantify their answer? And can they communicate this to you while they do it?

The question you throw at them can be anything. In fact, it’s helpful to choose something they don’t have domain expertise in. One of my favourites is:  “How many piano tuners are there in London?”

There is no right answer, it’s all about the process of deduction and the assumptions made, and how well this is communicated.

I normally ask a candidate to use the whiteboard to derive their answer, explaining their logic and assumptions along the way. I get to see how that person approaches a new problem, how they make their assumptions and estimates. How they communicate their ideas and what their imagination is like.

It’s useful to interject along the way, asking them to explain a particular assumption or suggesting another way of looking at things. This helps reveal how they respond when challenged, as well as how receptive they are to other people’s ideas.

How can you score candidates

I can imagine some adherents of competency-based interviews throwing their clipboards in the air at the suggestion of using an estimating question and maybe with good reason. After all, how do you score candidates consistently in such an unstructured format?

I would argue that there are things that can be measured, such as expected milestones or deductions. But, probably the most significant requirement for an effective audition is to have an effective interviewer. Having somebody tick items on a checklist or copy verbatim what the candidate said is not going to cut it.

My personal view is that you get a much better feel for a candidate by setting them a task in real time, as opposed to sending them away to produce something. The iteration and two-way dialogue give you a much stronger sense of what they can do and how quickly they can do it. So, before you can know if your candidate is up to the job, you really have to make sure the interviewer is too.

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Holly Sawyer
Holly is the Marketing Manager at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch.

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