Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fetishes in Successful Companies

Affluent companies and organizations often develop fetishes.  These fetishes are practices that get associated with the success of a company or organization, but which are only enabled by - rather than drivers of - the organization's affluence.  Sometimes these fetishes are harmless; they are uncorrelated with success and just a minor "tax" on the system.  Sometimes the correlation is actually negative, but the company is doing so well that no one in management or on staff realizes the impact on performance.

You can surely think of many examples of this - maybe even in your own organization.  Here is one example with a happy ending, however.  Google has been known from its earliest days for hiring people who are among the smartest in the world. The ways in which Google went about assessing candidates was legendary.  It asked for college transcripts and SAT scores, invited the "smartest" people tom come in for an interview, and then subjected the candidates to brainteasers such as:

  • How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle? 
  • How many times a day does a clock’s hands overlap? 
  • You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do? 
As Google's revenues and stock price soared, so did the legend surrounding its staff selection process.  The impression was created - inside and outside Google - that that selection process was helping drive the company's success. (Some have even credited the free food in Google's cafeteria.)

But, alas, the selection process has turned out to have no predictive relationship to the actual performance of staff. Laszlo Bock, an SVP at Google, said: "We found zero correlation.  It's a complete random mess..."

This example is noteworthy because Google itself did the analysis, and in the process they turned a fetish into a hypothesis that was found to be wrong. Now Google is using what they call behavioral interviewing: “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” This approach is a lot less clever than the brainteasers they used to prefer - but it seems to work much better.

(And, by the way, following these changes, Google now has teams where 14 percent of the members have never even been to college.)

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