How to Hire People Who Think: Use Games

May 14, 2014
photo by Mark Chussil
photo by Mark Chussil

If you want to recruit people who have knowledge, test their knowledge. If you want to recruit people who have experience, ask for job histories. And if you want to recruit people who can think, watch them think.

I’m a strategist, not a recruiter. I’ve been around. I’ve seen people who think strategically and those who don’t. I’ve learned what kind of people I want on my team. I’ve learned what kind of person I want to be.

The way you can tell a strategic thinker is not by gender, age, education, experience, nationality, ethnicity, or industry. (There’s some evidence political preferences may reflect strategic thinking, but I’m not going to go there.) The way you can tell a strategic thinker is by observing them thinking strategically. What you want to do is to observe their thinking early and at low cost; that is, when you hire them.

I spoke recently at the ERE Recruiting Conference in San Diego. The audience and I played a game. It wasn’t a complicated game, and its specifics aren’t important here. This game can be played entirely with people, which how I use it in my workshops on strategic thinking. It can also be played with a single person and a computer, which would work better in recruiting.

By a “game” I don’t mean a toy, riddle, or race. Strategic thinking doesn’t have much to do with the twitch reflex; quite the opposite. I mean a serious game that requires thinking.

The point of the game is not to see how many points or tokens or gold stars a person can collect. It’s very hard to tell if success — including real-life track records — comes from true talent or sheer luck if your only evidence is the person’s collection of point, tokens, or gold stars. The game is actually unsolvable. That’s a good thing, because the point of the game is to drive the conversation you have with the player after the game.

I’ve run this serious game with thousands of people. I’ve heard a variety of reactions to it. Which of them reveals strategic thinking?

  • “It was a stupid game.” No, it wasn’t. Not many people give such an extreme response. Ask them why they think it was stupid.
  • “You tricked me!” No, I didn’t. Some people fear they performed poorly (they didn’t). Probe further. Can they observe themselves and critique their thinking?
  • “I see what I did.” Major improvement: no longer a victim. However, focused more on judgment and ego than on strategy and insight.
  • “I see how the game works.” Another major improvement: it’s about the game, not about the player.
  • “Oh! Then it means this, and this, and this …” This rare person is seeing the implications of the game in real life and is imagining ways to leverage that insight.

Critical thinking is about mental due diligence and the hygiene of logic and inference. It’s the antidote to anecdotes and superstition.

Strategic thinking is critical thinking, and more. Strategic thinking adds two notions: imagination, the ability to think creatively, and anticipation, the ability to think through the consequences of actions. People often say oh, that’s like chess. Yes, on the anticipation part. Less so on the imagination part, because chess players don’t get to change the game itself.

Can strategic thinking be taught after a person has been hired? Based on my experience I think so, even if it’s unclear whether I’m teaching it or I’m merely unlocking what was already there. (It doesn’t matter much.) That’s why I use various games in my workshops. That’s also why I wouldn’t consider “It was a stupid game” or “You tricked me!” to be automatic, irrevocable disqualifiers in hiring. I would probe further, though, in the post-game conversation.

Who needs strategic thinking? Everyone who cares about the consequences of their actions. Especially, though, those who play real-life serious games. In other words, those whose real-life scores depend not only on what they do but also on what others do. Broadly, that means people who make policy and set paths. Not only in business.

Games are terrific at revealing whether a person is strategic, impulsive, thoughtful, foolhardy, a gambler, a perfectionist, and more. Your key as a recruiter is to ignore the score and watch the person.

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