Charrette interviews serve as a unique opportunity to see how well a potential employee can collaborate with a team, lead a conversation, and react to quickly changing information.

I have recently adopted an interview process loosely based on the charrettes favored by architects and urban planners. A charrette in their context is a design meeting that includes users from different perspectives covering diverse topics and brainstorming for new ideas.

As part of the hiring process, charrettes serve as a unique opportunity to see how well a potential employee can collaborate with a team, lead a conversation, and react to quickly changing information.

In the fast-paced, collaborative teams I build, team work, creativity, and thought leadership are critical in all employees. I’ve never failed my staff more than when I hire a person who might technically proficient but can’t think outside the box or add value to projects outside their immediate comfort zone.

Traditional 1 on 1 interviews are great for learning about the skills, work history, and general personality of a potential candidate. They are terrible for learning about how that person works on a team, is capable of leading a conversation, or can react creatively to fast changing information. That’s what this charrette interview is for.

The Charrette Interview

You will be asking the candidate to come prepared to lead your team in a discussion about a problem-set defined by you ahead of time. To be effective, these interviews need to be discussions, not presentations. When done well, everyone should leave the room having learned something. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Charrette interviews should 30 to 60 minutes long.
  • A minimum of 6 people should attend from your staff.
  • The candidate needs to lead a discussion, not give a presentation.
  • The goal is not to see if a candidate can arrive at correct answers. It is to get a sense of how they think, communicate, lead, and react to new information.
  • Cell phones, computers, and any other distractions need to be left at the door.
  • The candidate needs to lead the discussion. Try hard not to take the role from them.
  • If the candidate is doing all the talking and not engaging your team, you should politely guide them into a conversational role.

Prepping the candidate

Most people are unfamiliar with interviews of this nature. It is completely natural for the candidate to be nervous, confused, and trepidatious about their participation. To best set them at ease, call them or talk to them in person about what the charrette is, and what will be expected of them. Give them an opportunity to ask any and all questions they may have and at least a few days to prepare.

You need to create a problem-set for the candidate to get them started. This should be something related to the job they are applying for and broad enough to give them room to think. A few examples:

  • A designer: Ask them to pick a section (not a page) of your Web site and walk through how they would approach a complete redesign.
  • A marketer: Ask them to pick a line of business and walk through how they would go about building awareness and repositioning it to consumers.
  • A product manager: Ask them to walk through how they would craft a completely new experience for one of your products.
  • A sales lead: Ask them to walk through how they would position the company to prospective clients.

Make a few things crystal clear to the candidate.

  1. They need to prepare for the charrette. This is not something that they can wing.
  2. They can bring whatever notes and materials they like but it is NOT a presentation.
  3. There are no “right or wrong answers”. This is an exercise in creativity.
  4. They are expected to lead the conversation, ask questions, and have a point of view.
  5. This is their opportunity to vet the people who will be their peers before they choose to become a member of your team. (Interviews are two way streets, after all.)

Prepping your team

The participation and preparation of your current team is just as important as that of the candidate. Walk your team through the process and let them know that you want their feedback on the potential hire. (You do want that, right?) Tell them the problem-set and guidance you provided to the candidate. Tell them that they are expected to take part in the conversation by asking questions, speaking up if they disagree with something the candidate says, and answering any questions posed to them.

A few specifics that should be clear to your staff:

  1. The candidate is not an expert on your business and your staff should be forgiving of incorrect assumptions.
  2. Stress the importance of being respectful. This is the candidate’s chance to decide if she wants to join your team as well.
  3. Double-stress the need for your team to participate in the conversation and brainstorm on ideas.
  4. Make attendance mandatory.

If you follow this basic plan for running a charrette interview I am certain that all involved will find it a rewarding experience. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.