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  • Malcom Gladwell insight into Recruitment and Productivity

    Posted on April 13th, 2009 Peter Tjernström No comments

    In an essay titled Annals of education – Most likely to suceed published in the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell, famous author of the entertaining and sharp-wittedly written book The tipping point, brings up two topics about skills and professions relevant to any manager:

    1. No prediction possible: There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.

    2. Differences in productivity: An economist at Stanford estimates that one particular student’s actual learning in one school year can, depending only on the teacher’s teaching skills, vary between half a year’s and a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year.

    The example used to illustrate the first point is about drafting quarterbacks for the NFL. There is appaerently no correlation between when a quarterback was picked in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he later played in the pros. The reason for this, argues the author, is that the pro game is a completely different one. NFL teams can’t run the common college offence tactic called the spread, which simplifies the quarterback’s decision-making, because the pro defenders are so much faster. This will put the talented quarterback in very different, and much more stressful, position once he enters the NFL.

    This is a very interesting aspect also when you consider recruiting for project management positions. You can be 100% certian that sooner or later your PM will be put in a position where he or she will experience a lot of stress. Both of the immediate kind, (in meetings with for example important stakeholders or an external customer), and the more lingering or dwelling kind. Yet there is no way that you can determine or predict how a person will react under stress. Any question regarding this matter during the job interview is also in vain. You can be sure that the applicant’s answer won’tu provide you with any relevant guidence, simply because no one applying for a PM job will descibe to you how badly they react under stress. This is why assessment centres are so popular.

    But unless you have the benefit of knowing someone who has previoulsy worked with the applicant during stressful times, you just have to accept the fact that some things just aren’t predictable and go by your instict in this case. After all, you weren’t hired because you can make predictions for the future based on numbers from the past, but because you can select and develop the right people. Right?

    The topic of productivity variation is also very related to PM work. Based on experience from product development enviornments, I’d say that even when comparing developers with what appears to be similar experience, (same education, same number of years in the profession, seemingly similar tasks), the difference in productivity can easily reach a factor of five. Meaning that the more productive developer does in one day what takes the other guy one week. In some cases, this can even reach a factor of ten and software development is where these extreme case are found.

    It’s easy to understand that when salary differences for the same job at the same workplace never can reach even a factor of two, it is crucial to recruit and retain the more productive employees.

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    3 responses to “Malcom Gladwell insight into Recruitment and Productivity”

    1. I have his new book “Outliers” which I’m really looking forward to reading.

      From the The New York Times:

      Gladwell explains why the relative-age effect (a compounding of some initial advantage over time), explains why a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players were born in the first half of the year (popularizing the research of a Canadian psychologist). Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” Since the differences in physical maturity are so great at that age, this initial advantage in when one starts playing competitive hockey helps explain which kid will make the league all-star team. And similarly, by making the all-star team earlier, the January 2 kid gets another leg up in more practice, better coaching, tougher competition, that compound that difference. Gladwell says it explains why by age 14, the January 2 birthday kid (who is only a couple days older than the December 30) kid is so much better at hockey. Gladwell says the solution is doubling the number of junior hockey leagues—some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, as it applies to elementary schools, Gladwell believes that elementary and middle schools should put group students in three classes (January-April birthdays, May-August birthdays, and September-December birthdays) to “level the playing field.”

      Interesting stuff.


    2. Peter Tjernström

      Yes, indeed. This applies as well to Swedish hockey players making it to the national team. And I would bet that the same goes for any team sport involving some type of physical competition.


    3. Not sure things would be better by “leveling the playing field” though. Nor that the kids are so much better because they get more practice or better coaching.

      It surely is down to the fact that those that are smaller, younger and weaker are forced to become that much better and tougher at an earlier age, in order to hold their own and compete with those that are faster, stronger, better. A case of raising the bar and forcing them to clear it if they want to take part, while at the same time eliminating those who would never become world-beaters anyway.

      An argument for grades and more competition in schools perhaps? Jan Björklund would be very pleased.