Diversity with a Small d

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In recruitment, there is currently an underlying search for the "killer"question - an interview question that will consistently sort the cubic zirconium from the flawless D diamonds.

The Fallacy of the Killer Interview Question

During the Second World War, Bletchley Park was the home of the UK Government Code and Cipher School responsible for cracking German codes such as Enigma and Tunny. Never in human history had one side of a war read the complete communications of the other. Ten thousand people were recruited to man the code breaking factory during the war in the strictest secrecy - all without the aid of a modern HR solution! This must be one of the most amazing recruitment campaigns in history.

One of the recruiters for Bletchley Park, Major Masters, had two questions that he always asked in an interview. His questions were "do you play chess?" and "do you like crossword puzzles?".

After working with each other for a while, members of his section inevitably compared notes on their interviews and in particular their answers to these two questions:

One answered that he enjoyed chess, and that he tackled crossword puzzles often. A second responded that he had never really bothered with chess and that he did not waste time with crosswords.

If these were the killer questions to determine which skills you could bring to code breaking, why did these people both get the job?

Major Masters was before his time. He didn't want the same answers. He needed linguists, logical mathematicians and organisers, people with incredibly different skill sets. He needed people with their head in the clouds dreaming new attacks on the codes, and people who could wade through detail, following prescriptive code breaking techniques. He didn't want people who all answered the questions the same, he wanted people who answered the questions differently. He wanted diversity - diversity with a small "d".

Diversity with a Small "D"

Given the need for so many different skills Bletchley Park was not looking for clones. Within the confines of 1940's Britain, the Government Code and Cipher School searched for as varied group of capable people as it could. On a visit to Bletchley, Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the time, saw the strange array of linguists, mathematics professors, Egyptologists and army personnel and was reported to have said, "I know I told you to leave no stone unturned, I didn't expect you to take me so literally".

Skill sets and personality types were mixed with incredible success. Ciphers that were believed uncrackable were broken by the Bletchley diversity. After the mathematics and linguistic "breaks", organisers and engineers took over to exploit this for all messages using that cipher. Meredith Belbin would have rejoiced in the complex mix of characters and roles.


Diversity provides an alternative perspective. It reduces the "blind spots" of an organisation. It can promote growth fuelled by new ideas and vigour. Looking for a particular set of interview answers - consciously or unconsciously - can create a bias in candidate selection.

Further Reading

Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers

A book about Bletchley Park code breaking and the role of Colossus - the worlds first electronic computer.

McKinsey's Research Using Big Data