Is this the best job for this person’s career?

One heuristic we developed at Infochimps and used in several crucial hiring and firing decisions was to ask ourselves “Is this the best job for this person’s career?”  Hiring and firing decisions can have a huge impact on an individual, affecting their livelihood and self-perception in significant ways.  Once aware of the possible grave effects of hiring a person into the wrong role, or letting someone go, it is really easy for the decision-making process to get all gummed up with emotion and sympathy.

We had a very friendly, people-centered culture at the company.  Somehow the initial reasons for letting someone go or passing on a candidate never could add up to the kind of thing you’d want to say to that person’s face.  “You don’t fit in here” or “you don’t perform to our standards” can be pretty cold-blooded words to hear, and are not likely to help the individual down their path.  We also had a standard we tried to uphold whereby every job candidate left our hiring process with nothing but good things to say (even if we turned them down), same with the folks we had to let go.

One way we found to turn it upside down and come at the problem in as people-centered way as possible, was to ask ourselves “Is this the best job for this person’s career?”  Once framed this way, it can be much easier to reach a yes/no decision on your hire/fire dilemma.

As well, many of the issues we might have had or foreseen with this person become helpful points of feedback and ways we could try to set them up for more success down the road:

  • “You don’t fit in here” becomes “We believe you’ll be happier somewhere else” – Especially in our technology industry, there are hundreds of different companies to choose from for employment, offering a huge variety of cultures that might be more in-line with what that candidate believes in.  The latter reasoning makes clear that we don’t want the person to be unhappy in our organization.
  • “You don’t perform to our standards” becomes “We think you’re earlier in your path than we need for this role, and don’t want to set you up for failure” – This acknowledges their talents and aptitude, and presents the issue in a forward-thinking, optimistic point of view.  Instead of “these are the things you lack” it is “these are the things you have yet to learn or acquire.”
  • In times of a pivot or when money is tight, “we don’t need your job anymore” or “we can’t afford you anymore” are generally neutral and non-personal explanations anyway, but these can be taken another step further and phrased as “we can no longer offer you the kind of role and challenges that would help you grow.”  Again, the spirit is that the person will move on to bigger and better things as a result of this.
  • When a choice is murky because there are two candidates, one with a lot of experience and another with less, asking yourself whether the position is a better next step for either candidate can help narrow the choice.  Maybe the more experienced candidate will find the position more humdrum and same-old, not bringing the attitude and excitement you might hope for.  Maybe they are excited and consider this a great leap for themselves – but because it’s a new industry or technology area, not because it’s a title bump.

There can be lots of ways to phrase the feedback to a candidate you pass on or someone you let go, none are perfect in every case.  I have found, however, that by simply asking the question you put yourself in the frame of mind that yields much more empathetic and helpful discussions about the decision.  Next time you have trouble deciding whether to hire a particular candidate or whether to let someone go, try it.  Ask yourself: “Is this the best job for this person’s career?”

Decision making in a complex world

Streetlights and Shadows is a book by Gary Klein that takes commonly held maxims for decision making and overturns them, revealing cases where these practices break down.  The book’s title comes from the story of the man who went looking for his lost housekeys under a streetlight instead of where he lost them in the shadows – he went for where there was more light.  We do the same when we resort to old maxims that only help in ordered situations without realizing we need something different.  Klein’s book does an impressive job showing us where these problems occur and he prescribes how we can be more resilient decision makers in these scenarios.

He begins by outlining ten of the most widely held beliefs taught about systems and decision making, and after telling a few stories about each he describes a replacement maxim.  The ten claims and their replacements are:

  1. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully. Replacement: In complex situations people will need judgment skills to follow procedures effectively and go beyond them when necessary.
  2. Decision biases distort our thinking.  Replacement: Decision biases reflect our thinking.  Rather than discouraging people from using heuristics, we should help them build expertise so they can use their heuristics more effectively.
  3. (Sub-point to 2) Successful decision makers rely on logic and statistics instead of intuition.  Replacement: We need to blend systemic analysis and intuition.
  4. To make a decision, generate several options and compare them to pick the best one.  Replacement: Good decision makers use their experience to recognize effective options and evaluate them through mental simulation.
  5. We can reduce uncertainty by gathering more information.  Too much information can get in our way.  Replacement: In complex environments, what we need isn’t the right information but the right way to understand the information we have.
  6. It’s bad to jump to conclusions – wait to see the evidence.  Replacement: Speculate, but test your speculations instead of committing to them.
  7. To get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.  Replacement: We can’t just give feedback; we have to find ways to make it understandable.
  8. To make sense of a situation, we draw inferences from the data.  Replacement: We make sense of data by fitting them into stories and other frames, but the reverse also happens: our frames determine what counts as data.
  9. The starting point for any project is a clear description of the goal.  Replacement: When facing wicked problems, we should redefine goals as we try to reach them.
  10. Our plans will succeed more often if we identify the biggest risks and then find ways to eliminate them.  Replacement: We should cope with risk in complex situations by relying on resilience engineering rather than attempting to identify and prevent risks.
  11. Leaders can create common ground by assigning roles and setting ground rules in advance.  Replacement: All team members are responsible for continually monitoring common ground for breakdowns and repairing the breakdown when necessary.

All of his replacement claims have common themes of adaptability, experience, and expertise winning over stricture, linear thinking, and risk management.  I’ve found almost all of his ideas to be directly applicable to running a startup and the challenges of making decisions in that kind of environment.  You are constantly in the shadows, with only hints of illumination peeking through.

Some of his replacements are no-brainers on a surface level.  Procedures are dangerous and often have glaring holes you may suspect but may not be able to pinpoint.  Of course data and your frame for looking at it are equally important, and one would expect that over time and with experience you will be able to make more decisions successfully from intuition alone over careful analysis.

His more subtle examples include statements about goal setting, risk management, and heuristics.  These examples are especially applicable to teams of people and early stage projects.  It’s nearly impossible to set goals in the beginning of projects when there are so many unknowns.  Admitting this, and acknowledging that you will have to discover and revise your goals along the way, let’s you clear your mind of these issues and get back to doing.  During the process, if you stay aware, the goals you were looking for will emerge on their own.

An early stage company is essentially a group of people trying to do something together.  Each person will have their quirks and challenges that make them difficult to work with.  You can tinker with a lot of things in a startup’s early days, but not your founding team and stars.  By their nature they will usually add a ton of value, but they are unlikely to change.  It’s up to you to build a culture where the erratic geniuses around you can get their work done, while minimizing their disturbances to progress elsewhere.  A lot of my job is just supporting systems that create a more resilient environment where these folks can still thrive.

These people are just another kind of risk.  Accepting you can’t change or get rid of them is the same as accepting that there are risks you are blind to, that you are in a complex situation where instead of a focus on risk elimination you should focus on risk tolerance.  You will never be able to list everything that could go wrong and rat out the issues, so you must create an environment that is robust and resilient against these risks.

Some of the biggest ideas missing from Klein’s book come from war.  Although he used a few examples from the modern military to show where local problems occur due to a misguided belief in some of the claims above, he made no mention of Boyd and his work on adaptability and the OODA loop, in which expertise and intuition are the keyholes.  Klein even has a diagram of his own that looks like a dumbed down version of the loop.

Clausewitz’ idea of friction also gives us a unique stance from which to appreciate Klein’s work.  Friction is a very apt term to use when thinking about startup problems.  Acknowledgement of its ever-presence, with the care to combat it using the toolkit Klein provides, just might help us get better at making good decisions in our complex world.

Your undergraduate business degree will burn your career into the ground

I haven’t been back to the business school at UT for over a year now and haven’t regretted the decision to leave for a long time.  I had written some about why I left, and thanks to some recent experiences I am even more confident in my decision.

I work at http://infochimps.org/, where I do business and customer development.  Recently I have been bringing in more help, from technical programmers and data mechanics, to internship roles to help me in my position.  We are doing some of this through on-campus recruiting and the students that listened in Business Administration 101 are the worst applicants that I get.

Their resumes are boring and bland.  In BA101 you are taught how to write a three paragraph cover letter saying that you look forward to this ____ position.  That you’re a hard worker, your GPA shows it, have great communication skills, and you look forward to working in an office environment.  And then include nothing else, because employers do not want to see that.  I know they do, I was there.

I get these applications, with good GPA’s, some work history, and my first question is always “Have you been out of the state of Texas?”  In the interview, their most important answer is the one to “Tell me about a project or experience that you’ve had that was self-directed.”

The directors of the business school programs somehow don’t see that these are the most important qualities any excellent employer is looking for.  I want to know if you were born in Panama and spend 2 months a year there.  That’s COOL.  That means you may see things differently than everyone else.  When a business school disencourages the inclusion of this on a resume, and even the three years you may have spent living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, they are seriously fucking you in the ass.