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Do You Know Creativity When You See It?

by Richard McGourty on

One of the main services we provide is helping our customers answer the question: Can this person do this job? However, there are other questions often embedded in the assessment request.  Sometimes they’re asked straight out when we talk to the hiring manger beforehand, but often they’re implied or only half-spoken. Questions like:

  • Can this person bring an innovative mind-set to established products and processes?
  • Is this person capable of asking new and challenging questions which can lead a team in new product development?
  • Will this person lean into problems which require creative problem-solving?

These questions – ones that probe at creativity or innovation – may seem more complicated to answer. For one, the criteria for success in creativity, unlike the criteria for success in a particular position, may be less clear cut, making it harder to know definitively if this person is creative. Are there past experiences that point to its existence? What does creativity, or an innovative mind-set, really look like? How do you know it when you see it?

Asking the Right Questions

I recall discussing the selection of young scientists with experienced scientists at a national laboratory. The experienced scientists were not interested in a candidate’s grasp of established knowledge. They were prepared to stipulate to that on the strength of the candidate’s doctoral training, research, and the recommendation of his or her professors.

What they wanted to know was whether the candidate had what they termed “an interesting turn of mind”. That is, did they have “a flair” for creative problem-solving? Could they bring “something new” to the team? Sometimes there was a promise of that in the candidate’s research; that’s probably what got them an interview. But, now that they were there in person, the scientists had a chance to hear the quality of the candidate’s thinking. The hope was that the interviewing scientists would be able to detect “that spark”.

The scientists wanted to know what questions they could ask and, importantly, how to listen for the answer.

Alternative Use Questions

Researchers in creativity have long used a question which asks the candidate to generate as many alternate uses as they can for an everyday object. They might ask: “Paper clips are used to hold papers together. What else could a paperclip be used for?”

The interviewers asking the alternative uses question listen for the number of responses (an indication of active searching); number of different categories (a measure of flexibility, i.e. not getting stuck on one category of use) and originality. Because these answers can be easier to score, such questions can be useful, but they’re also very generic. For the interviewing scientists, they were not science-focused enough.


The use of brainteaser questions had been popular in the tech world but has fallen out of favor. Not only are they not predictive of performance, but the questions and their answers are often available online if you search for them. Questions like, “How would you figure out how many ping pong balls would fit in a jet airplane?” may require a degree of creative thinking but if you can memorize the correct answer before getting asked, the point of the question is defeated.

Past Experiences

A third approach is the use of a familiar interview question format, “Tell me about a time when … “. In this case it would go something like this,

  • “Tell me about a time when you faced a problem and had to come up with a response which was outside past practice. Walk me through your thinking.”

The challenge for the interviewer in this example is to gauge the creativity of the answer. There is no set formula as there is with the paperclip question. Rather, the interviewer listens for that “interesting turn of mind”, that “flair” or the “spark”.

Knowing a Good Answer When You Hear It

The fact that we turn to metaphors to describe what we are looking for indicates that the thing we are looking for is elusive.

Here is a path forward: we can equip ourselves with numerous examples of creative thinking in the hope that with enough exposure we can recognize it when we see it.

The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson provides a striking example of how truly creative thinking is a thing apart from simply applying what is already known to a problem.

In Dr. Tyson’s example, answers like, “I would Google it?” or “I would ask the building management company” or “I would call the building’s architects” are fine, but they are not creative. They are three variations on the same idea: “I would ask somebody.”

The solution offered by the person in Dr. Tyson’s example is on a different level. Once you hear the solution, you get the “aha!” reaction. You get an enhanced understanding of how to distinguish between a standard approach to solving the problem and a genuinely creative approach. In addition you get an internal, almost emotional reaction of what a truly creative response feels like when you hear it.

You have a clear example of how a creative mind goes beyond simple solutions and does not get stuck on the familiar.

Applying it to your Business

The interviewing scientists settled on three problems they were wrestling with at the time. They asked the candidate how the problem could be approached and listened for “that spark”. The candidate did not have to solve the problem to impress the experienced scientists. All they had to do was demonstrate a searching intellect and a willingness to consider the maverick idea.

I routinely ask candidates for their best examples of a creative solution to a problem. I have accumulated some fine examples and in so doing I have refined my ability to identify “an interesting turn of mind”, “that spark”, “a flair for the unconventional.”

Our recommendation – start asking your colleagues for the best example of creative thinking they have ever encountered. The more examples you learn about, the better. This will sharpen your ability to know it when you see it.