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‘Why is there a hole in the lid of a Biro’?

Before we get to the answer, of what on the face of it might seem to be an obscure question, ask yourself this. How often are you challenged with unexpected problems or challenges, and more importantly how do you typically respond? Also how good are your team at dealing with completely out of the box situations or problems when faced with them?

Similarly, how often do you think critically about why things are the way they are. How something is designed the way it is, and were might be the opportunities for improvement?

From experience, the answers to the above can be a broad church to say the least.

Twenty years ago, an interview experience taught me a great lesson about the importance of problem solving and critical thinking, and how for certain industries they are simply must have skills.

Approaching the end of my Chemical Engineering degree in Queens University Belfast, I went for an interview for British Sugar over in Peterborough England. With no intention of ever relocating, I took the interview simply to gain some experience for other opportunities that would hopefully lie ahead.

At the end of what was a very thorough, and taxing interview, the Senior Engineer who was part of a two-person panel, handed me a standard Bic biro out of the blue. A blue one I think, not that it matters.

‘Can you take us through how this pen works, and why it is designed the way its is’ I was asked, unexpectedly. No prep, or Google search to rely on, and no hiding place!

Stumbling through each element of the pen, from the shape of the plastic sleeve to the tip design, my expressionless interrogators were giving me no clue as to how I was doing. It was torturous.

Finally, we came to what turned out to the defining moment of my interview.

‘Why is there a hole in the top of the lid’ the HR Manager softly enquired of me?

To this day, I do not know where the answer came from, or where I had heard it before. But as soon as I was asked, I promptly albeit cautiously responded…

‘It is in case a child swallows it, and it won’t block their airwaves.’

‘Very good’ was their succinct reply, and in a manner that made me feel that my answer was not expected. Probably based on how badly I answered everything that preceded it.

In the end, it was enough to get a second interview, albeit one that I politely declined. Over the years since, when interviewing junior Engineers, I would often use the same tactic, to the surprised amusement of both my interview colleagues and the interviewee. Bonus points were awarded for getting the hole in the lid right! That interview and line of questioning has stayed with me ever since.

Why? Well firstly, in the manufacturing world I inhabit, to quickly analyze situations, and solve problems, you must rely on your innate problem-solving abilities and technical skill set. Apply logic and reason, and not be afraid to give your opinion on something when expected. If you are wrong, you are wrong. Learn and go again.

When you are in a position of accountability, your job is to make decisions and be decisive. Not only good decisions, but simply decisions. How many of them are good, will be determined by your ability to learn, listen, analyze, and commit. In the scripted, information rich world we inhabit nowadays, these skills are increasingly in short supply.

The Bic story also serves as an example of how throughout my career, I have as much as possible grasped opportunities when presented. Not always sure of their merit or what might come from them.

That interview in Peterborough, still stands as one of the best interview experiences I ever had. At a very early stage in my engineering career, it gave me an appreciation of the importance of problem-solving skills, and how they are valued in industry. Something I have thankfully tried to build on in the twenty years that have since past.

So, the next time you hold a standard Biro, have a good look over it and ask yourself the same questions posed to me.

At least now you know why there is a hole in the lid. But do you know why there is a small hole in the side of the plastic sleeve?

Take care,