Riddles, Puzzles… for Creative Minds in Business: Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM…

Giving groups or teams a mixed set of riddles, puzzles… gets people working together and using each other’s strengths… riddles, puzzles… are great for competitive team building exercises.

A riddle game is a formalized guessing game, a contest of wit and skill in which players take turns asking riddles. The player that cannot answer loses. A riddle, sometimes called a ‘brainteaser’, is usually a question that requires clever or unexpected thinking for its answer. Riddles, puzzles, and lateral thinking exercises help team building, motivation, and will warm up any gathering.

These are great brain exercises, and are good illustrations of how the mind plays tricks, and they add interest to meetings and training sessions.  These lateral thinking exercises and complex puzzles are great for making people think, opening minds to new possibilities, and illustrating how the mind plays tricks and the importance of using the brain, instead of making assumptions.

The structure of a riddle typically uses one of several techniques to create a twist, which makes it difficult to guess. One common technique involves double meanings. If the double meaning is in the words of the question, then the language creates intentional confusion. The asker intends one meaning and hopes that the guesser will understand the words differently. Here is an example: Railroad crossing, watch out for cars; can you spell that without any ‘r’s?

In riddle, the asker intends for the guesser to understand the word ‘that’ as a demonstrative pronoun and try to spell: Railroad crossing, watch out for cars without any ‘r’s, which is impossible. The goal is really to spell the word ‘that’ without any ‘r’s; the first half of the sentence is used to make the listener confused as he or she hears the second part.  When the double-meaning word or words are not stated by the asker, the riddle may require that the listener understand it as a pun.

An example of this would be: How do we know the cook was a terrible person? The answer is: Because he beats the eggs and whips the cream. Here, the cook’s ‘cruelty’ is understood from the multiple meanings of ‘beats’ and ‘whips’ as both forms of punishment and culinary techniques.  Another method for deception in riddles involves a deliberate attempt to make a listener come to a false conclusion.

Here is an example: A woman has seven children, half of them are boys; how can this be possible? This riddle relies on the idea that the guesser is likely to assume that if half of the children are boys, the other half must be girls; with an odd number, this is impossible. By recognizing this assumption as false, however, one can reach the correct answer: if all the children are boys, then half of them would also be boys, even though three and a half children do not normally make much sense. Some of the most common types of riddles have clues to the solution within them, but have to be thought about very carefully to be fully understood…

In the case of a  puzzle, it’s a problem or enigma that tests the ingenuity of the solver. In a basic puzzle, one is intended to put together pieces in a logical way in order to come up with the desired solution. Puzzles are often contrived as a form of entertainment, but they can also stem from serious mathematical or logistical problems — in such cases, their successful resolution can be significant contribution to research. Solutions to puzzles may require recognizing patterns and creating a particular order.

People with a high inductive reasoning aptitude may be better at solving these puzzles than others. Puzzles based on the process of inquiry and discovery to complete may be solved faster by those with good deduction skills.  The Rubik’s Cube and other combination puzzles are toys based on puzzles that can be stimulating toys for kids and are a recreational activity for adults. Puzzles can be used to hide or obscure objects…

In the article Great Answers for Bizarre Questions by Matthew McClearn writes: Picture this: you’re at a potential employer’s offices, on your third interview, sporting your sharpest suit. Just when you think you’ve made a good impression, the interviewer throws you a curve: Can you swim faster in water or syrup? You’ve never bathed in syrup. You didn’t think this job would require it. And you have a question of your own: Seriously? These sorts of odd-ball questions—logic puzzles, brainteasers and riddles—have been favored by some employers as a means of testing problem-solving and communications skills for over half a century.

In his recently published book ‘Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?’, author William Poundstone explains the origin of the brainteaser (IBM pioneered this line of questioning in the 1950s), and discusses how by the early 2000s it had become common among technology, finance and consulting firms. Today, Poundstone says; you’re getting these questions from all sorts of companies that didn’t previously ask them. It’s a reflection of the very high unemployment rate. They’re desperate to find some rationale for picking one person over the others. Some experts dispute that the oddball question is on the rise, however.

Technology blogger Gayle Laakmann McDowell served on Google’s hiring committee for three years, and she says that Google now prohibits many of the sorts of questions (gems like; ‘How would you weigh your head?’ or ‘A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?’).

By and large, tech companies have moved away from these crazy brainteasers, she says, because they don’t test anything relevant.  That said, the so-called Fermi questions (named after Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi)– which test a subject’s ability to devise, on the fly, a logical method for estimating an unknown quantity– are still quite common. Things like: How many pizzas are delivered every year in Manhattan? Another one that comes up pretty often is: If you were given a million dollars to redesign Bill Gates’s bathroom, what would you do? It may seem bizarre, but it’s actually about product design.

Google management admits that brainteasers have been used in job interviews throughout the company’s history. But, Shannon Deegan says that Google studied its data and determined they generally don’t elicit useful information. We’re encouraging employees to ask them less and less, he says, because we don’t think it gets to the meat of what we’re trying to find out about the candidate.

In the article Brainteasers for Job Interviews and Brain Challenge by Alvaro Fernandez writes:  A recent CNN arti­cle explains well why a grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies use brain­teasers and logic puz­zles of a type called ‘guessti­ma­tions’ dur­ing job interviews:  Seem­ingly ran­dom ques­tions like these have become com­mon­place in Sil­i­con Val­ley and other tech out­posts, where com­pa­nies aren’t as inter­ested in the cor­rect answer to a tough ques­tion as they are in how a prospec­tive employee might try to solve it.

Since busi­ness today has to be able to react quickly to shift­ing mar­ket dynam­ics, they want more than engi­neers with high IQs and good col­lege tran­scripts. They want peo­ple who can think on their feet… What are tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies (e.g., Google, Microsoft, Ama­zon…) and con­sult­ing com­pa­nies (e.g., McK­in­sey, Boston Con­sult­ing Group, Accen­ture…) look­ing for? They want employ­ees with good so-called ‘exec­u­tive func­tions’; problem-solving, cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­ity, plan­ning, work­ing mem­ory, decision-making, even emo­tional self-regulation…

Want to try a few? Please try to ‘guess’ the answers to the ques­tions below based on your own log­i­cal approach. The goal is not to find out the right answer, but to 1) iden­tify the logic approach that will help ‘guessti­mate’ an appro­pri­ate range, say + or – 30% of the actual answer, and then 2) com­plete the cal­cu­la­tions (ide­ally men­tally, but you can also take notes) to pro­vide an estimate. OK: Ready, Set, Go!

  • How many times heav­ier than a mouse is an elephant?
  • How many fire­fight­ers are there in San Francisco?
  • How many trees are there in NYC’s Cen­tral Park?
  • How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
  • What is the weight of a large com­mer­cial airplane?

The answers appear below. Again, the key here is to try, plan the steps towards the solu­tion, and do the men­tal cal­cu­la­tions to find a rea­son­able range. That’s the brain chal­lenge. The goal is not to find the pre­cise cor­rect answer. Here are the answers:

  • Around 150,000. An aver­age ele­phant weighs 4,000 kg on aver­age; an aver­age mouse 25 grams.
  • Around 350 fire­fight­ers on duty on any given day, out of a pool of 1700 fire­fight­ing over­all staff.
  • There are over 26,000 trees (of approx­i­mately 175 species) in Central Park.
  • About 500,000, assum­ing the bus is 50 balls high, 50 balls wide, and 200 balls long.
  • For a Boe­ing 747:
    – Empty: 400,000 pounds (lbs), or 181 met­ric tons
    – Max­ Take­off Weight: 825,000 pounds, or 374 met­ric tons
    – For con­text, empty Hum­mer car is 8,600 pounds.

In the article Playing Puzzles Can Help You Earn More: Study by PressTrust writes:  Do you want to earn more than your friends and colleagues? Then, play crosswords! In a new study, people who keep their brains active by playing puzzles, crosswords and brain teasers, not only earn more but hold more senior positions at work.

Puzzle makers ‘Jumbo Games’ surveyed 1,033 British workers aged 18 and over and found that the average income of puzzlers was 32,073 pounds while non-puzzlers took home 7% less with an average salary of 29,923 pounds, ‘Express & Star.Com’ reported. People with annual income of 45,000 pounds typically puzzle 35% more than those on lower salaries (10.6 times a month compared to 7.9 times a month), while 70% of people earning more than 120,000 pounds puzzle three times a week. Some 14% of puzzlers said that completing jigsaws and solving mind games such as crosswords and sudokus boosts concentration at work while a quarter (25%) believes that it gives them an edge over their colleagues.

More than a tenth of managing directors and chief executives questioned (11%) admitted that they have seen a noticeable improvement in their brain power as a result of playing puzzles and brain teasers. The study found that one in 10 Brits that puzzle (10%) have been promoted in last six months and nearly a third (28%) has had pay rise. According to Donna Dawson, behavior psychologist; research shows that completing riddles, puzzles and other mental games sharpens the brain by improving memory, concentration, level of alertness, recall of detail, recognition of patterns and speed of reaction time...

Before you use any team building riddles, puzzles, games… think about whether the activities are appropriate for the team members and the situation… team members should ideally enjoy the activity, learn something and improve results.