Don’t Explore Thoughtland In Interviews

Whether you are interviewing potential employees or potential customers, don’t explore Thoughtland with a focus on predictions and beliefs. Instead, explore actual behavior and prior experience.

Don’t Explore Thoughtland In Interviews

No one actually lives or works in ThoughtlandQ: I started out with a degree in Metallurgy and worked as an IT and Business Analyst at two global firms for a decade before going back to get an MBA. Since then I have worked in both engineering and marketing roles for software and systems integrators. I recently interviewed for a product management role at a small hot startup and failed and I am still trying to figure out what happened.

It was an hour long interview with the founder: for the first half he asked me to come up with market need and scope a solution and outline it to him. It was an open ended question: no specifics or constraints. His critique was that I should have picked a larger problem and come up with a more disruptive solution. For the second half he asked me to go the whiteboard and sketch out the product in detail: how will it be installed, what will user login look like, key screen details, what would the technology stack be, how to price, what elements would contribute to viral growth.

During the interview he would interrupt me with questions and it was clear from his expression that any time I didn’t have an answer that matched his expectations it was a red flag. Needless to say I have not heard from him again after the interview.

Is this typical of how startups interview? If it is how should I prepare for next time?

A: Next time you should wear a blue tights and a red cape since they are clearly looking for a super hero.

Of course everyone can be a super hero in Thoughtland: you are only limited by your imagination. Real life attaches many more constraints.

The most effective interviews don’t involve hypothetical situations and problems but explore your past behavior and accomplishments to determine demonstrated skills and see if there is a values fit with the organization.

I would talk about real product management situations you have faced, your solution to them, and the impact on the business that resulted.

Obviously if you get a product management job and are interviewing prospective customers for a new product the same rules apply: focus on their actual behavior and experience, don’t ask hypothetical questions or ask them to predict their future behavior.


In Thoughtland you use abstract ideas to ask hypothetical questions and collect opinions.
      Thoughtland: Ideas -> Questions -> Opinions 
In Actionland you use artifacts to prompt actions and collect data.
      Actionland: Artifacts -> Actions -> Data 

There are two problems you encounter trying to work abstract ideas:

  1. The Lost in Translation Problem: An idea is an abstraction–and a subjective one at that; it’s something that you imagine or picture in your head. The moment you try to communicate what you see in your mind’s eye to someone else you run into a challenging translation problem–especially if your idea is new and different from anything else they’ve seen. The way you imagine the new product and its uses may be completely different from the way they imagine it.
  2. The Prediction Problem: Even if your audience’s abstract understanding of your idea is a close match to your original intention, people are notoriously bad at predicting whether they would actually want or like something they have not yet experienced, or if and how they would actually use it.

Albert Savoia: Don’t Tell, Ask: Data Beats Opinion

Related Blog Posts

Photo Credit: SouthernWI “Deserted”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top