Frank Deford’s opinion piece today on NPR connects Brad Pitt’s movie Moneyball with the feel good sports story of the moment—Jeremy Lin’s rise on the New York Knicks. The dynamic in each case unintentionally illustrates lessons for organizations looking to hire the best talent. In Lin’s case, the scouting oversight that created the context for his explosion from obscurity parallels a prevalent recruitment dogma in most companies.
Deford begins by reminding us how Billy Beane used novel statistical analyses to identify bargain players and compete with high-payroll teams. There’s an especially telling scene in the movie, in which Beane argues with his organization’s talent scouts about the new strategy. Deford describes them as “the copycat scouts who are all on the same page, addicted to the same physical ingredients that make up their model prospect.” Against Beane the scouts are unanimous about what a “great player” looks like. The scouts’ groupthink about both process and quality resists Beane’s new approach. An approach that eventually is proven right and leads the team to unexpected success.
I believe that hiring practices in most organizations mirrors the scouts’ groupthink. HR processes, in an effort to become more formalized, have instead become insufficiently able to identify path-breaking talent. It’s the old truism that average can’t be exceptional.
Both the qualitative evaluation of Beane’s scout team and more quantitative assessments are susceptible to the shift toward average. For example, the personality questionnaires and other assessments more and more companies put candidates through have at their core an unstated assumption. All of them are built to identify the “type” of candidate companies think they want. Even in highly proactive HR departments that continually refine their target profiles and indicators (and there are few), the bar always consolidates around an average. Granted the average represents those people who have performed well in a position or track in the past. But as always, if we move toward any average we will miss the exceptional. The different. As Deford says, “It is the truly courageous judge of young talent — in any sport — who dares predict success for a player because of qualities that can’t be quantified.” I’d amend his observation to “in any organization.”
I believe the underlying incentives for this timidity are borne in an organization’s culture. Most corporations rationalize the elimination of risk from operations as a kind of efficiency. But the unintended consequence of eliminating risk is incentivizing the avoidance of responsibility. And, in an effort to skirt responsibility we rely on plausible deniability. Our attempts to quantify human performance provide a convenient claim in the event of underperformance. We can always point out that “well, anyone would have made that mistake, look at the numbers.” Deford agrees. “Scouts (Read: recruiters and hiring managers) tend to be uncomfortable with anything different.”
This played out with Lin. No one in the Knicks organization “not one scout, one coach, one general manager — could see what everyone sees now when it’s fashionable. None of the people paid to envision, could envision.” None of their metrics predicted his potential.
All organizations depend on identifying and utilizing great talent. And the kind of talented people that redefine a position are unlikely to share similarities with previous hires–the people whose “Satisfactory” performance evaluations were pooled to create those hiring assessments. Heck, even the codified thresholds for what exceptional or above-average performance look like are defined by the achievements of past employees. If we want exceptional, we must seek different. (If you forgot, watch the Apple commercial again below.)
Anyone responsible for hiring should accommodate an awareness of these biases into their decision-making. Even more important, those running companies should create the cultural space for others to take risks on candidates with unusual skills, perspectives and resumes. The ability to take advantage of undiscovered, exceptional talent redefines your organization’s performance–as Apple says, they push you forward.