The best and the brightest?

I hear a lot of talk about companies wanting to hire the best and the brightest (I’m going to abbreviate this as BaB for this article). But I wonder if that’s a great long-term strategy? Is there something better?

When building a business, we’re often so focused on the parts that make up the system of our business that we forget that our business is itself a part of a bigger system. Is it selfish for a business to hire only BaBs? Would it be better for that business, in the long haul, to hire average people and help them become great? Would that be a short term sacrifice that would benefit the bigger system and thus ultimately the business itself?

It’s interesting that there’s a book designed to teach managers how to keep the BaBs that they hired. That’s a fear isn’t it, with hiring a BaB – the fear of their mobility. Compare the loyalty of the BaB you just hired from another company versus someone who your company helped develop into a BaB.

Hiring BaBs isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, anyway. In 2004, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled, The Risky Business of Hiring Rock Stars. It’s worth reading.

“For all the hype that surrounds stars, human resources experts have rarely studied their performance over time. Six years ago, we started tracking high-flying CEOs, researchers, and software developers, as well as leading professionals in investment banking, advertising, public relations, management consulting, and the law. We observed that top performers in all those groups were more like comets than stars. They were blazing successes for a while but quickly faded out when they left one company for another.”

Why might this be? One of the key reasons cited has to do with systems. The performance of any individual is a combination of her own individual performance plus her interaction with the system in which she works. The equation looks like this, where P is performance, I is the individual’s contribution, and SI is the contribution due to the individual’s interaction within the system: P = I + SI

Even if you knew P, you’ve still got a single equation with two variables. And the SI term is constantly changing over time, so it’s ultimately impossible to measure. When you remove the BaB from their system and bring them into yours, you’ve really no idea what P will become.

A business that takes the long term view need not be in a rush to hire BaBs. Because it believes in strengthening the system in which it is a part, a business with long term vision will develop its employees. It will help its employees continue their education (and here I don’t necessarily mean a traditional college education). It will constantly bring in new knowledge from the outside and share that knowledge with any employee interested in learning.

When I look back on my life, the happiest, most energetic and productive times were when I was in a development spurt. I was eager to challenge myself, venturing outside my comfort zone little by little, and getting better every day. And it’s not just my experience. Listen to Liz Wiseman talk about the power of rookies. But people won’t take themselves out of their comfort zone, learn, and develop, unless they feel safe.

Many business environments are not suitable for inspiring learning. We only learn by making mistakes, and when mistakes are not tolerated, or there’s an environment of fear, or short term thinking, forget it – you’re not going to have much luck growing BaBs from within.

If, however, you build an environment free from these things, safe and conducive to exploration and learning, this is a very sustainable model. This leads me to one last great reason to build your own BaBs instead of hiring them from the outside: those BaBs know how important it is to preserve the environment in which they flourished. A rock star from the outside won’t have this important understanding, and what’s worse, they may bring along baggage from their previous company which tends to threaten that safe environment you’ve worked so hard to build.

What is a system?

Dictionary definition: “a collection of parts that make up a whole”.

Deming took this one step further by postulating that every system must have an aim.

Many systems evolve without their “designers” consciously thinking about an aim, but you can often reverse-engineer the aim of a system by studying its makeup and the outcomes it’s producing.

In nature we see many examples of systems, and the aim there seems to be sustainability. Nature tends to balance itself so that only the necessary parts in the system remain, and unnecessary parts die out.

Wetlands are a great example of a sustainable system. Fish eat plants and produce ammonia as waste. If this ammonia were allowed to build up, it would eventually become toxic. Certain types of bacteria treat this ammonia as “food” and convert it into nitrites and ultimately into nitrates, which is “food” for plants. The plants remove the nitrates from the water, effectively cleaning it so the fish can thrive. All of the parts work together to contribute to the aim of the system, and the aim is sustainability – that all of the parts may thrive. Fish, bacteria, and plants, ultimately live together in harmony.

Humans create systems all the time. A business is a system. A school is a system. A home is a system. How well any of these systems function, how effective and efficient they are, often comes down to how well the parts cooperate to support the aim.

Complex systems are fractal in nature. Take a school, for example. If the aim of the school is to serve the students so they develop into mature, contributing adults in a democratic society, then every part of the school must contribute in some way to that aim. For example, a necessary part of a school is facility maintenance, which creates a physical environment conducive to achieving the aim of the school.

One part of a system can become selfish, no longer concerned with the aim of the overall system. Think about what would happen if the fish in a wetland were to multiply so much that it was out of balance. The entire system could be destroyed this way. Nature takes care of this by eliminating the excess fish – they starve if there’s not enough food, and the system restores its balance.

What about human-engineered systems such as schools, business, and government? It’s remarkable how these systems survive as long as they do given the amount of selfishness present in the parts. Take departmental goal setting as an example in business. Each department is out for itself, trying to be number one by hitting its goals, versus thinking about what’s right for the overall system of which it is a part.

When a part of a system becomes selfish, it weakens the overall system, which ultimately harms all of the parts. When a part of a system makes a sacrifice that helps the overall system, all of the parts of the system are rewarded because the whole system thrives.


Goal vs. aim

I hear people talk about goals all the time. Much more rare is to hear about aims. A goal has an end state, while an aim does not.

“Reduce accidents by 25%.” That’s a goal.

“Reduce accidents.” That’s an aim. It gives us direction (we want less accidents), but there’s no numerical target.

As of this writing, I see numerical targets everywhere I look. Goal setting has become an unquestioned strategy for improvement. But there are some real dark sides to goal setting, and one big one is short-term thinking. An aim tends to foster longer term thinking and sustainability.

Once I learned the difference, things started becoming visible to me that were previously hidden. I started tuning my own language to use the proper word (aim or goal) depending on the context. And I find myself using the word “goal” less and less all the time.

Culture of competition

During a recent Deming seminar, after listening to the speaker talk about the drawbacks of paying salespeople on commission, one fellow in the audience clearly couldn’t take it anymore. He spoke up, “I’m a sales guy. What, you’re telling me that we’re just going to quit keeping score?” This speaks to our culture in the US.

What creates our culture of competition?

  • Fascination with sports
  • Gold stars and grading in schools
  • Shame we have in our lives that leads to judging others in order to build ourselves up
  • What else?

Exhortations are not knowledge

Knowledge is a gift. An exhortation is an albatross. How can you distinguish between the two?

Ask yourself, does this statement contain knowledge that might help someone do their job? Does the statement contain an aim and a method for accomplishing that aim?

Exhortations don’t contain knowledge, but they often contain emotion. Some managers think it’s their job to “motivate” employees by sharing emotions like this. Try sharing some new knowledge next time instead. Give the gift of knowledge!

Knowledge is a gift

“The theory of knowledge teaches us that a statement, if it conveys knowledge, predicts future outcome, with risk of being wrong, and that it fits without failure observations of the past.” – W. Edwards Deming

A system includes an aim and a method for accomplishing that aim, and this is the gift that true leadership brings.

In a healthy organization, people work together to come up with aims and methods for accomplishing those aims. It becomes a sort of knowledge factory, not only bringing in new knowledge from outside, but innovating new knowledge from within via experimentation. This works best when the environment is free from fear, because people in fear are afraid to make mistakes, and mistakes are key to learning and developing new knowledge.

One antipattern to watch out for is the exhortation. Exhortations sometimes include an aim, but no method for accomplishing it. It’s as if the person doing the exhorting expects a miracle to occur.

Another antipattern is micromanagement, where knowledge is hoarded by management and a culture of fear results.

Becoming a better father

I was raised with a stepfather who was absent (when he wasn’t being abusive), and in looking back in my parenting style, I feel like I’ve been a relatively absent father in a lot of ways. Jim Rohn says, if you want to be happy, study happiness. If you want to be wealthy, study wealth. It occurs to me that if I want to be a better father, I should study fatherhood. Here are some of the things I’m studying. This is mainly a list for me to bring me back to this practice, but maybe some of my male readers will find it helpful. If you have suggestions for other resources, please comment here!