How to Hire People Who Think: Use Games

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.

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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.

Mark Chussil is Founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc. and a co-founder of One of the world’s most unique and provocative thinkers in competitive strategy, he conducts workshops on strategic thinking in companies, MBA programs, and conferences on six continents. A pioneer in business war-gaming, he has helped Fortune 500 companies around the world to make or save billions of dollars. An innovator in strategy simulation, he has earned a patent (another is pending) and an industry award for his technologies. He’s a highly rated speaker and widely published author. He earned his MBA at Harvard and his BA at Yale.


15 Comments on “How to Hire People Who Think: Use Games

  1. I’m curious to know some of the options for the games you mentioned, though I presume that you left them out intentionally.

  2. We might all think we know what qualities we want but the only way to know with any reliability what qualities are the right ones when hiring someone are to look at what actually drives performance, from validated results – not my or your isolated opinion or experience. If a game reliably measures something that is key for performance, fine, otherwise it’s maybe cool and likely irrelevant.

  3. Thanks, Mark. As both a recruiter and and as an employee, it has been my experience that while companies pay lip-service to critical thinking and profit-maximizing rationality, a great many decisions are actually made according to the GAFIS Principles (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, Ignorance/Incompetence, and Stupidity) or more formally: “cognitive biases” ( Consequently, I’ve found tools such as you suggest are used to rationalize irrational decisions or are quickly ignored/discarded. (A jerk with power beats a whole box full of useful tools 7 days a week), and that critical thinking which actually challenges the status quo (without an alternative source of powerful support) is almost always viewed as a threat to be eliminated, particularly when it comes from those of us who actually do the work.



  4. Very interesting Mark. As Paul suggests, I’d like to see how this tool can be used as an adjunct (as all tools should be) to an effective process AND how it relates to different positions; e.g., What will it tell us about a major account sales rep vs a tactical, small deal sales guy?

  5. Eranda: yes, I left out the game details intentionally. It would have added a great deal to the length of the essay and not added to its key points.

    What’s important about the game is that it is unsolvable and it shows how people think.

    The how-people-think part matters because it provides an opportunity to ask people why they made their decisions, probe why they didn’t do something different, ask if they’d considered this or that possible strategy, and so on. Answers can be shallow or thoughtful; they can be “victim” or “responsible;” they can show conventional thinking, knee-jerk reactions, or creativity. Those differences help assess someone’s ability to think strategically.

    Unsolvable: that matters because many, probably most, perhaps all strategy decisions do not have a single right or wrong answer. (I understand that that might be a controversial statement. I don’t make it lightly.) If the game has a right or wrong answer, then the game would be testing a person’s ability to do arithmetic or apply conventional thinking. When a game is unsolvable we get to see how a person deals with uncertainty, ambiguity, and truly difficult real-life problems.

    Thanks, Eranda!

  6. Paul: you raise a very important point. “What drives performance” and “validated results” are extremely difficult problems in competitive strategy. (I’m writing a book on the subject now and I’ve built technology to help companies answer that very question.) For example, it’s hard to know if a track record comes from being lucky (or unlucky) or from being smart (or not-smart). It’s especially hard early in a person’s career when there isn’t much of a track record.

    What I’ve concluded after many years struggling with exactly the issues you raised is that the best we can do is to raise the odds of good decisions, and the best way to raise the odds is to improve the quality of our strategic thinking. Results come from action; action comes from decisions; decisions come from thinking.

  7. Keith: you too raise a critical subject, and from the way you expressed it I’d guess you have some sad/painful stories to tell. (May I also suggest that cognitive biases may lead to GAFIS but the biases themselves are not intentionally GAFIS. And cognitive biases affect all of us.)

    In my workshops and webinars on “Why Strategies Fail” I take your point and twist it a bit. I ask, why would a smart, rational person make decisions that lead great companies to ruin? No one intentionally leads a great company to ruin. Quite the contrary, they think they’re doing the opposite. Then we get into biases such as fundamental attribution error, confirmation bias, and much more.

    Plus, there are numerous forces within companies that actually (though unintentionally) lead to counterproductive behavior. As one example: companies exhort people to take risks AND they hold them accountable. Take a risk, it’s okay to fail, but if you fail you’re out. It’s ironic: the desire to improve performance (accountability) leads to action that hurts performance (risk aversion).

    Part of what I’ve seen happen with games (e.g., business war games) is that people discover such problems for themselves. I’ve seen Fortune 500 companies achieve consensus and make 180-degree changes in a couple of days. People want to succeed; the challenge is to help them do it.

  8. Carol: great question. I don’t know the answer. I’ve been using games for decades in competitive-strategy decision-making and in educational programs about strategic thinking. I know a lot about how they reveal people’s thinking and how they improve decisions and performance. I’m still pretty new to using those tools to assess positions. I’m definitely open to ideas, plus opportunities to do some testing.

    I think it’d matter what the position requires. Does a major account sales rep need strategic thinking? In some industries (aircraft, B2B high tech, consulting, etc.) I’d say yes. In others, maybe not. A small-deal sales guy might face strategic issues (demonstrating deep value, not just superficial, for customers), just on a small scale.

    A question I’d ask is whether the hiring company has an untapped opportunity. Can the company improve its performance by hiring more-strategic salespeople (major or small-deal) and by helping tactical salespeople become more strategic?

    I saw a bunch of highly tactical regional sales directors get an eye-opening experience in a business war game. That experience led them to generate ideas to solve a problem that they’d previously said couldn’t be solved. (The ideas succeeded.) That’s a bit afield from recruiting but it shows that games can help broaden horizons. The benefit in recruiting is that it’d help to know who’s open to having horizons broadened.

  9. Jon: Thanks for your comments about gamifying. I spoke at a gamification conference in New York last September. It’s a rich and exciting field!

    I’ve built games and simulations for 25 years or so, got a patent (another pending), etc. I’ve even participated in my own simulations… and performed barely above average. See “When I Was Wrong”,

    There’s definitely value in performing well in a game. Someone who does well in a game is more likely to know something than someone who doesn’t.

    However, I think there are three issues in non-trivial games. First, the nature of that “something” isn’t necessarily clear. Second, it’s hard to separate lucky from smart. Third, it can be hard to judge good performance. Those issues are emphatically NOT the fault of the game and they emphatically do NOT reduce the value of the game.

    The reason I run things the way I do — I care more about the debrief than the score — is that I focus on strategic thinking. I care about the way a person thinks because in competitive strategy a person will have to figure out complex problems on a shifting landscape. If the job, though, is to find a person who can do a specific job, then measuring performance itself in the game may be paramount.

    For example, you can ask a pilot if she or he has ever crashed a plane. Odds are extremely high that the answer will be no, not only because the person is alive to talk to you but also because modern aircraft are extremely reliable. If you put that person in a flight simulator, though, you can safely see if he or she knows how to handle an in-flight emergency.

    I will personally attest to the importance of those simulators. I was on an airplane when an engine caught fire in flight. I have no idea how dangerous that is but I figure it’s not good. Scariest event of my life. Odds are extremely high that the pilots had never encountered that event in real life. But odds are also high that they’d learned about it in a simulator. They knew exactly what to do. (Spoiler: happy ending.)

    Please see also my comments to Eranda about “unsolvable” and to Paul about luck.

  10. @ Mark. Thank you. You’re right (GAFIS Principles and CBs)- I conflated two related but distinct things.

    “Why would a smart, rational person make decisions that lead great companies to ruin?”
    Because: it is in their self-interest to do so. We live increasingly in an “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, let’s do the deal!” world- the negative consequences of decisions take place long after the benefits to the (former) decision makers accrue.

    “People want to succeed; the challenge is to help them do it.”
    I partially agree- “People want to succeed; the challenge is to help the maximum number of them to benefit from it, and not just those at the top.”

    Looking forward to much more from you.


  11. Thanks, Keith.

    The self-interest thing is critically important. Self-interest is not only a cause; it’s also an effect. It’s an effect of how things work. As you say, part of how things work is that people may be gone long before negative consequences start to bite. We change the individual’s calculus of self-interest when we disconnect them from far-off consequences. That’s a deep subject.

    I believe it’s also true that people have a hard time estimating consequences in the first place. We may anticipate good consequences, and be wrong. There are many causes of that effect, such as cognitive biases, using accounting tools on strategy problems, the enormous range of what can actually happen, and more. On the latter, I did a project for a Fortune 100 company and THEY showed, in about 15 minutes, that there were literally millions of possible futures. (See “The How-Likely Case.”

    All of this is why it’s so important to have strategic thinkers in organizations. To me, part of what makes a thinker strategic is that he or she can think much more broadly, rigorously, and creatively than the conventional wisdom.

  12. This sounds like a choose-your-own-adventure that incorporates a dynamic, rather than static, map of scenarios. Brilliant.

  13. Thanks, Brian! I love comments where my games and writing appear nearby words like “brilliant.” 🙂

    I like also the way you put it, as a dynamic adventure. Debriefing people after their adventure has proven a fascinating way to learn how they think. (Or, occasionally, don’t.) If I constrain or judge them by whether they play the game one specific way, I’d be doing a disservice to them and me.

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