You want to bring more "questioners" into your organization. The ones who never settle for the status quo. The ones who get to the bottom of a problem. The impediment is often a staid interview process. How can you gauge a job candidate's ability to pose provocative questions if all she does is reply to a formulaic human resources script? 

In a recent post on Medium, designer Misa Misono explains how IDEO, the ballyhooed design firm, addresses this challenge in its own interview process. Specifically, Misono lists nine interview questions IDEO uses to screen a prospective employee's talents as a questioner. 

She groups the questions into three categories: Proof (assessing a candidate's expertise and experience), potential (assessing ability to work within ambiguous parameters), and passion (assessing personality and cultural fit). Here are the "proof" questions: 

1. How are you adapting your work to changes in your industry?

2. Have you launched a new product or service? How did it go?

3. How would you create financial projections for a new product?

At first glimpse, you might wonder what the third question--about financial projections--has to do with design. In reality, the fiscal piece is crucial. Design firms are in the business of solving problems for clients. Clients view problems and solutions through a prism of business models and financial projections. To be conversant in those topics can only help in the challenge of reframing what the client wants into useful questions. 

You're seeking what innovation expert and author Lisa Bodell calls "strategic imagination." It describes the rare talent of thinking imaginatively, yet simultaneously being able to find the practical, revenue-generating heart of a creative idea.

One of the interview questions Bodell asks to assess strategic imagination is: "If you had one month and a $50,000 budget to tackle any project, what would it be?" Another is, "Which external jolts or wild cards have the potential to significantly impact our industry?"

You can see how these questions--by gauging whether a job candidate is conversant in budgets and business model evolution--work in the same way IDEOs do: They assess the pragmatic, dollar-driven side of long-term innovation. Misono calls this "designing for viability," which requires IDEO to show how a proposed solution can fit with a company's strategy and business model.

The idea is that today's "what ifs" drive tomorrow's solutions. Finding employees who will boldly pose and operate within the murky space of those "what ifs" is the challenge. Misono's next set of questions, the "potential" category, assesses an employee's potential for delving into those hypotheticals: 

4. Do you embrace the opportunity to develop your own process?

5. Can you set up parameters that feel defined but not overly restrictive?

6. Do you make things real and tangible, or are you more theoretical?

IDEO's clients are paying for a fresh, original perspective to their business problems, so the last thing the design firm wants to do is propose the same answer everyone else is getting. This presents employees with a pretty challenging work environment.

"IDEO projects can be highly ambiguous, without a clearly defined process or toolkit to help your team get to the finish line," explains Misono. "Business designers need to help determine what work should be done to explore, test, refine, and recommend a final solution." 

One way IDEO designers get at a solution is by embedding themselves in the environments of their clients' customers. Through close observation, they act like curious anthropologists, learning what customers want. So when the firm is hiring, IDEO uses the above questions to make sure candidates are able to operate in such an environment, ask the right questions, and explore possibilities with little regard for product or industry norms.

"In some ways the most creative step in any new design problem is the question you ask in the beginning," IDEO CEO Tim Brown explained to Bloomberg. "Because if you frame the question too narrowly or in a way that everyone else frames the question, there's a pretty good chance the answers you come up with will be the same as everyone else's answers."

Finally, IDEO uses its "passion" questions to learn about a candidate's expertise in fields other than design or business, because there is ample evidence to suggest that some of the best ideas come from combining insights from disparate fields:

7. What excites you?

8. What problems in the world do you want to solve?

9. What would you uniquely bring to our culture?

These seemingly off-topic questions serve an important function: IDEO wants to know what kind of outside expertise a candidate brings to the table that might help a team think in a new way.

For example, what can an employee who studied dancing as a teenager potentially bring to a design challenge involving how to prepare students for college?

IDEO believes the life experiences of such an employee are likely to "spark new ideas for the team's design challenge," Misono writes. The overall idea is that intense teenage preparation for one field--dance--will surely yield insights about teenage preparation for another--college. 

The point is that innovative insights arise when you challenge what's familiar through exploration, testing, and outside perspectives. IDEO's interview questions provide insight on how they find the employees best-suited to mine those outside perspectives in the service of innovation.

Published on: Apr 28, 2015