Are Projects the New Job Interview?
Published: Jul 26, 2012
In this week’s article I want to share with you some of the content of a very interesting, thought-provoking article published on the online edition of Harvard Business Review (www.hbr.org): “Projects are the next job interviews,” by Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, and author of Serious Play.
“Resumes are dead. Interviews are largely ineffectual. LinkedIn® is good. Portfolios are useful.”
That’s the opening statement of Schrage’s article. And, while this might ultimately prove to be the case, based upon what I know about today’s job market, Mark Twain’s famous “the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated” quote comes to mind. (This is what Twain, who was very much alive at the time, reportedly said after reading his “obituary” in the newspaper!)
Still, Schrage gives us plenty to think about in his article and makes some interesting, compelling points to consider.
Projects the Real Future of Hiring?
“Projects are the real (emphasis mine) future of hiring,” he says, “especially knowledge working hiring.”
No matter how good one’s references may be, or how much of a dynamite professional brand one may have created and maintained, or even how well one scores on “brain-teasers” such as those offered by Microsoft® and Google®, serious firms will increasingly ask serious candidates to do serious work in order to get a serious job offer, Schrage contends. (All emphasis is Schrage’s.)
Some of today’s job seekers are already being asked by some companies to put their money where their mouths are before being seriously considered for certain jobs, and Schrage says many more will be asked to do so in the future, by completing projects for potential employers. For example, a candidate may be asked to redesign a social media campaign, or to edit a keynote speech for a company executive, or to document a tricky piece of software, ad infinitum. (The type and scope of the project would seem to be limited only by the imagination of the hiring managers for any given company taking this approach.)
Schrage says future job seekers can forget about interrogatory job interviews and the predictable questions that are part and parcel of such interviews, e.g., “What’s your greatest weakness?” (And similar questions, of course.)
Introducing the "Appliject"
“The real question will be how well candidates can rise to the ‘appliject’ [a contraction of “application” and “project”] challenge,” he says.
Schrage acknowledges that, to some people (particlarly the candidates), this practice may be, or at least seem to be, somewhat exploitative, but he adds, “Most organizations have learned the hard way that no amount of interviewing, reference checking and/or psychological testing is a substitute for actually working with a candidate on a real project.”
Candidates who participate in screening projects must usually sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and are sometimes even pitted against several other candidates vying for the same positions and assigned the same projects.
“But there’s nothing fake or artificial about the value they’re expected to offer,” Schrage adds. “These organizations treat hiring as part of their on-boarding process. Hiring becomes more holistic . . . (and) . . . everyone in the enterprise now ‘gets’ that people only get hired if and only if they deliver something above and beyond a decent track record. . . .”
Both Candidates, Companies Can "Test Drive" Each Other
Not only can the hiring companies who employ the project approach to candidate screening get a “taste” of what the candidates can—and cannot!—possibly do for them, what value the candidate may be able to bring to the company, the candidates themselves also get a “taste” of what it would be like to work with real people from the company in real work situations.
“It’s worth something to know what it’s like to really work with one’s colleagues, on a real project, as opposed to the all-too-misleading charade of iterative interviews,” Schrage says.
Schrage adds that, just as many organizations have grown more skillful at conducting Skyped® interviews and using web-based quizzes and questionnaire to more effectively screen candidates, he is betting that we’ll soon see new genres of project-based enterprise hiring practices.
“Facebook® and LinkedIn® are obvious venues for ‘app-sourced’—that’s ‘app’ as in applicant, not application—business project design,” he says. “Increasingly, project leaders will design milestones and metrics that make incorporating job candidates into the process more seamless and natural.”
He predicts that savvy job-seekers will also develop a keen sense of which “applijects” are genuine invitations to genuine success and which ones are merely sleazy attempts to temporarily acquire cheap labor.
Top Candidates Expected to Quickly, Easily Adapt to "Appliject"
“In the same way job candidates learn how to interview well, they’ll get the skills to ‘appliject’ well because they (will) understand how to optimize their influence and impact within the constraints of the project design,” he says.
Schrage says, however, that the reason he is predicting that projects are (or will become) the new job interviews is not simply because he currently is seeing a nascent trend emerging.
“(Rather) . . . because this appears to be a more efficient and effective mechanism for companies and candidates to gain the true measure of each other,” he said. “Designing great applijects and projeclications [a contraction of “project” and “applications”] will be a craft and art. The most successful utilizers will quickly be copied.”
“Because the brightest and most-talented people typically like having real-world opportunities to shine and succeed,” Schrage said.
To be sure, Schrage’s article certainly gives all of us “food for thought.” Actually, my recruiting firm has represented candidates who have landed their dream jobs based, at least in part, upon projects that they themselves voluntarily submitted to hiring companies. So, I have had at least some positive experience with and professional knowledge of the efficacy of the project approach in general.
Will Project-Based Screening in fact Replace Traditional Interview? Maybe, Maybe Not
Will project-based screening in fact replace (or nearly replace) the traditional face-to-face (and telephone), interrogative interview process? Perhaps, but I don’t see it happening “overnight,” by any stretch of the imagination. (Nor am I suggesting that Schrage sees it that way, either.) More likely, I believe, is that it may gradually become a supplemental component of the entire candidate screening process, at least in the short term, and be utilized by very specific types of companies, e.g., advertising agencies, software companies, etc.—all companies that require a very specific and easily demonstrated skill (or lack thereof), such as copywriting, graphic design or programming.
Still, I personally (and professionally) am left with some key questions. For example, is the resume really “dead,” as Schrage (and others) allege? Or, more likely, will it simply morph into something that still looks (and acts!) a lot like a résumé? Without a resume (or some sort of logical mutation of one), how will job-seekers be screened for the “first cut”? How will they get in a position to even be considered for participating in a project-based screening process? Without at least cursory job interviews (telephone and/or face-to-face), how will “headhunters,” hiring managers and Human Resources professionals be able to get the all-important initial “read” on prospective candidates?
As with most factors (and facets) of the job market, things have changed in recent years, are continuing to change today, and certainly will continue to change in the future. One factor has remained, and will continue to remain, largely unchanged, however: Only those candidates who have professionally branded themselves as “the best of the best” will continue to be seriously considered for the really good, top positions available, in today’s and tomorrow’s job market. Just as these candidates are the ones who excel in the current interview-based applicant screening process, they will also be the candidates who can—and will!—rise to the occasion if (and when) the process evolves into a project-based one. They also will continue to be the candidates who walk away with the best jobs, every single time.
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About the Author
Skip Freeman is the author of "Headhunter' Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed... Forever!" and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.
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