The One Interview Question That Truly Matters

According to Lou Adler, the following interview question is the most important one to ask in order to gain insight about a candidate. According to Adler, it took more than ten years of trial and error to reach this consensus:

What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

And the explanation:

To see why this simple question is so powerful, imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select?

Then imagine that over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I asked you the following follow-up questions. How would you respond?

  • Can you give me a detailed overview of the accomplishment?
  • Tell me about the company, your title, your position, your role, and the team involved.
  • What were the actual results achieved?
  • When did it take place and how long did the project take?
  • Why were you chosen?
  • What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
  • Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
  • Walk me through the plan, how you managed it, and its measured success.
  • Describe the environment and resources.
  • Explain your manager’s style and whether you liked it.
  • What were the technical skills needed to accomplish the objective and how were they used?
  • What were some of the biggest mistakes you made?
  • What aspects of the project did you truly enjoy?
  • What aspects did you not especially care about and how did you handle them?
  • Give examples of how you managed and influenced others.
  • How did you change and grow as a person?
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again?
  • What type of formal recognition did your receive?

With an accomplishment big enough, and answers detailed enough to fill 20 minutes, this one line of questioning can tell an interviewer everything he or she needs to know about a candidate. The insight gained is remarkable. But the real secret ingredient is not the question; that’s just a setup. The most important elements are the details underlying the accomplishment. This is what real interviewing is about — delving into the details.

My favorite question when I do interviews: what have you built? Describe it.

A Way to Frame Questions

Robin Hanson considers that if you want to probe someone’s intellectual endeavors/pursuits, you should frame a question you ask them a certain way:

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer.

Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer.

Indeed, “Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions.”

So, what have you been thinking about lately?


(hat tip: Ben Casnocha)