Can I get a show of hands (err, clicks) for how many of you must deal with complexity on a day-to-day basis within your job? Yep, us too. In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, employees are often expected to demonstrate the ability to multitask and efficiently deal with disparate and emergent issues, all while managing to resolve the day-to-day tasks that may (or may not) be specified in their job description. Moreover, the problem-solving process often occurs in a team-setting – so employees need to possess the ability to not only resolve complex issues on their own but also through others.

So, just how can we assess the ability to solve complex problems in a team-oriented environment?

Psychometric Testing – An Incomplete Picture

One of our senior consultants recently saw two candidates for a market strategy role. The client organization was trying to double their business in the next five years; this new role would require the incumbent to analyze the market and determine, based on the company’s vast product portfolio, how to drive sales to meet the five-year growth target.

Prior to meeting, the interviewer scanned the candidates’ psychometric testing results—in particular, he was looking for strong critical reasoning scores, personality indicators of creativity and innovative thinking, and a collaborative leadership style.

Both candidates fit the bill. Beyond this, an interesting indicator caught the consultant’s eye, but without face-to-face interaction it was hard to interpret.

So, at this point, after looking at the psychometric testing, both candidates seemed almost equally suited for the job (spoiler: further examination found that this was certainly not the case).

The Behavioral Interview – Three Questions Deep

On the day of the interview, both candidates presented as smart, imaginative, and analytical. Unsurprising given some of the testing results. Further, both were foreign nationals who brought an understanding of international business with a good perspective on how to drive growth in emerging markets.

In the two-hour interview, candidates were asked a variety of questions aimed at understanding their capacity for complex problem-solving. For instance, they were asked to:

  • Provide examples of multifaceted problems solved in the past
  • Recount times they had successfully and unsuccessfully responded to new challenges in previous roles
  • Discuss other programs or processes they had driven

As a best practice, our assessors go three questions deep, asking not only about the problem itself, but also:

  • What was the individual’s specific role in these changes?
  • Who did they need to influence to drive change, and how did they do so?
  • What was their perspective on the success of the changes?

Making the Call – Pay attention to the manner

In responses, we looked not only for clarity and depth of thought, but also for indicators of their ability to work in a team-oriented way by bringing others along with them and gaining buy-in. A key differentiator between the two individuals assessed was the emphasis on team-playing (or lack thereof) in the way they presented their thinking.

Candidate A was humble, sharing his success with his team and indicating that it was a group effort. Conversely, Candidate B was arrogant: an assertion that was supported by his exceptionally high score on a measure of boldness included in a pre-assessment personality measure (Aha…the aforementioned indicator that could have been hard to interpret made complete sense after the two-hour interview!). He treated the assessor as if he needed a business lesson to understand the examples given.

Ultimately, businesses are about people – if you cannot work with people, your complex and collaborative problem solving skills will be underutilized, at best.

Candidate B said all the right things and gave impressive examples, but the manner in which he did so alienated the assessor in the interview. One can only imagine how his style would land when trying to collaborate cross-functionally with his new peers.

Perhaps you already guessed it, but the assessor recommended Candidate A. Complex and collaborative problem-solving were critical skills for this role, as they are for many roles we assess, and on paper, both candidates seemed nearly equally suited to the task. This is just one of many examples where the human element – the face-to-face interview – broke the tie.

Ultimately, businesses are about people – if you cannot work with people, your complex and collaborative problem solving skills will be underutilized, at best.

How important are collaborative and complex problem-solving skills in your business?

What others abilities are potentially hard to assess but critical to success in your organization?