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Measurement and The Talent Myth

This week's New Yorker has an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell called "The Talent Myth."  Gladwell challenges the "hire the brightest people you can and get out of their way" business philosophy, offering up Enron and the US WW II Atlantic submarine fleet as bad examples.  The article is a nice complement to Joel's recent post on measurement.

You can find the article at:

http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020722fa_fact

My conclusion: You need good people.  You need good organization and methodology.  Neither is a substitute for the other.

Hardware Guy
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

You need different types of people.
--Those who are smart, independent, think, get things done. They will probably not be around too long.
--Those who are smart, have bills or obligations.
--Those who are smart who will accept crap work for the money.
--Those who will do crap work.

Tom Vu
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Hmm, the author likes to invoke the Evil Enron.  Enron did This, so This must be evil.  An interesting shadowplay, where occasionally he makes absurd points about the narcissism of talent -- then quickly he dashes back into the safe haven of moderation:  Talent needs a good framework.

Replace Enron with Juno, and it reminds you of a certain Joelsky...

Sammy
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

BTW, I don't mean Joel made the same mistake; I meant the opposite.  He didn't demonize Juno for hiring good people.  Squandering them is the problem.

Sammy
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

As I've been saying several times - MBA's are not "top talent" and top management consulting firms sometimes lose the plot.

Hugh Wells
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

"It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing. "

Beautiful.


The article was an interesting read, but at the same time, I'm not sure if I can believe the examples and parallels the author uses to prove his main point.  It's easy to go in and criticize after the fact and it's easy to fit past circumstances into a puzzle that looks like it proves a point.

Some of the comparisons he made between Enron and other companies seemed kind of spurious.  Proctor & Gamble doesn't trade in energy.  Southwest wasn't attempting to set up a data-centric infrastructure.  The comparisons would have been much more believable if the author had used examples of other companies doing the same things, only with a different company culture.

I'm not saying that Enron is not at fault here.  Obviously, they are very much at fault.  But who's to say another company doing the same thing, only with a philosophy agreeble to the author's, wouldn't have failed too?  Perhaps some things are just out of the companies hands and they are doomed to failure (not to sound too Calvinistic here).  It's hard to find a successful energy trader these days after all.

I believe the author's main point (smart people don't make a smart company), but I don't believe everything he wrote.

Crimson
Thursday, July 18, 2002

There's a confusion in the article, and particularly the heading. He's not really talking about smart people, but about the aggressive culture of promoting empty MBA's.

Hugh Wells
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Smart people are everything. Unfortunately, to get smart people, you need to have smart managers to start with. If you don't, you hire Andersen as auditors and tons of MBA's and think you're fabulous. Until ...

Hugh Wells
Thursday, July 18, 2002


It's not just MBAs.  The article also uses the Navy as a prime example.  I see it a lot too in the programming world.  Prima donna programmers that think they are above any sort of a system.  But hey, that's what Joel preaches and he's a superstar so he must be right, huh?
A's hire A's, B's hire B's....

But yeah, just because you have an MBA doesn't mean you know how to run a company, just because you have a big brain doesn't mean you can ship product, etc...

An MBA
Thursday, July 18, 2002

When are you guys going to wise up to the great SILVER BULLET myth?

For any endeavor, there are a few paths to success and many paths to failure.  Failure has the highest probability.

The conclusion reached by Hardware Guy: "You need good people. You need good organization and methodology. Neither is a substitute for the other."  Is yet another silver bullet.

There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to success.  There is no strategy or methodology that is equally effective in all contexts, there is no case in which particulars can be safely ignored.

Achieving success is a day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute never-ending effective decision making session - for all decisions no matter what their size and no matter "who" makes them. 

Your brain must have its switch turned on.  Turn it off with "faith in mythodology", the latest flavor of the month "management" strategy, the newest revision of "THE PLAN", or drifting in daydreams... and your probability of failure increases several orders of magnitude.

Simple as that.

Joe AA.
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Joe AA, are you talking to McKinsey?

Hugh Wells
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Actually, I query a lot of the conclusions reached by the McKinsey people in their book. It really does sound like typical MBA crap. The RAF did not grade their fighter pilots into A,B,C during the Battle; live and dead was all they used. The conclusions about centralised structures are also wrong in some places.

Hugh Wells
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Hugh... Who/what is McKinsey?  And what is the book?

Joe AA.
Thursday, July 18, 2002

I still think that Joel has it right with the appellations of "Smart" and "Gets Things Done".

Smart is great, but Gets Things Done is equally important.

I also don't think that you can apply one model to both engineer and business people.  How my product manager displays intelligence and ability to get things done is completely different than my felllow enginners.  So by concluding that hiring the brightest MBAs doesn't help says nothing about weather hiring the brightest and most productive engineers helps.

I think that gets things done can be taught.  After working with a bunch who are good in both the gets things done and intelligence department, I have noticed that I have become better at the gets things done department myself.

I mean, they have shown that there is an order-of-magnitude difference in productivity between programmer productivity.  I'm not sure if they have show or can show the same difference in productivity between MBAs.

w.h.
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Hugh - only read the first few sentences, used article to voice unsubstantiated opinions.

Joe - didn't even bother to click on the link, used article to voice unsubstantiated opinions.

Thread - officially dead to any reasonable discussion, only yelling contests here on out.

I actually read the article
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Well "actually", I did actually read the article.

What triggered my thoughts was the mindless practice of giving someone a job just based on their "want" of it. 

I assume you believe it to be quite logical not to be concerned about minor things like "qualifications" to perform the work.

Joe AA.
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Joe AA wrote:

-----
The conclusion reached by Hardware Guy: "You need good people. You need good organization and methodology. Neither is a substitute for the other." Is yet another silver bullet.
-----

Nope.  No silver bullet here.  Both good people and organization/methodology are necessary.  That's not to say they're sufficient.

-----
There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to success. There is no strategy or methodology that is equally effective in all contexts, there is no case in which particulars can be safely ignored.
-----

Who said there was?

Hardware Guy
Thursday, July 18, 2002

"What triggered my thoughts was the mindless practice of giving someone a job just based on their "want" of it."

People are _much_ better at jobs they want to do. Giving people a job they want to do is important. Not only for the success of that individual, but for the creation of a working company that people want to stay at. If I get work I want to do I will stay at my current company; if I don't I will leave. That's not to say that you should only base recruitment and placement on "want" but it should count for a lot.

Mr Jack
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Productivity between MBAs?  Not really useful, MBAs can be found in all types of jobs (I used to be a financial analyst, now I'm a programmer).  Did you mean productivity between corporate leaders?  That gets measured all the time - it shows up in your bonus and the quarterly reports.

An MBA
Thursday, July 18, 2002

sorry.  since you asked who mckinsey was you must have forgot the opening lines, here they are:

"Five years ago, several executives at McKinsey & Company, America's largest and most prestigious management-consulting firm, launched what they called the War for Talent."

I actually read the article
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Yes Actually... you are correct.

I don't keep crap in my short term memory for long, and had no need to memorize the name.

Joe AA.
Thursday, July 18, 2002

"Those who are smart who will accept crap work for the money."

Notice
-------

Are you a brilliant genius who gets things done and is willing to work in a poor, unsupportive environment with outdated tools, impossible deadlines, restrictive contract conditions and no hope for advancement?

If so, you're just the person we're looking for!! We're hiring NOW!!

We're having a hard time finding all you smart talented people who will work for little so call us today!

If you are brilliant and talented and expect fair pay and decent working conditions, don't bother contacting us. You are spoiled and lazy and don't deserve to work you little piss ant.

Highly Paid Manager Looking for Talent with a Capital T
Thursday, July 18, 2002

To guy who read the article - it's very arrogant of you to state that I didn't read the article. I read it all. The article expresses my own views quite well.

Hugh Wells
Thursday, July 18, 2002

Mr. Jack wrote:
"People are _much_ better at jobs they want to do."

Sure, but 90% of the people want the same 10% of jobs. How do we make sure that we give the 10% to the best of that 90% and make the rest do the 90% of jobs that noone realy wants to do.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, July 19, 2002

Wow, there must be some sort of graph you can plot of usefulness of forum vs. number of readers/posters. At the beginning you have too few readers/posters to have a reasonable discussion, as more people join quaility improves, eventually though you reach the point we're getting to here where it all starts to sound like Slashdot. Soon will be having the goat.cx guy and linux vs. bsd arguments.  On slashdot you get the linux zealots, here you get the windows ones.  Some of the topics, for example the one presented here, could be the basis for an interesting discussion but they seem to degenerate into slanging matches very quickly these days.  Some people seem to be very sure that they are smarter than the author of "The Talent Myth", and keen to pick at the little things that may not be exactly spot on in their argument. What about the bigger issue, is basing a company around "talent", especially self-selecting "talent", a good idea? This sort of culture encourages a homogeneity of thought and behavior. The "talented" people recruit other "talented" people by looking, basically, for people just like themselves. I don't think this is very sensible, and it causes a spiral towards the louder and pushier "super-stars" who may not be very productive but certainly act the part.

Alex Moffat
Friday, July 19, 2002

You do have very good points, Alex.  Maybe I got envious that everyone is using this as a complaint board and wanted to get in on the fun. ;-)

The problem is that most companies fail because of lack of talent, not an abundance of it.  If you meet military grunts, they're usually pretty cocky.  Climb the ladder into special teams, they're overall smarter but humbler.  Quieter.  So narcissism affects not only the smarties.

I disagree with Joel.  Sometimes you can take a little bit of bad if it gives results.  If you're hindered, you gotta push it out of the way.  These performance sheets might be necessary to the company, but you can draw a middle finger on them.

Sammy
Friday, July 19, 2002

Sammy - I don't know... I can't see how something that gives results is bad, nor how something that is bad can give results.  Can you give an example?

Alex - I have found that people with talent (i.e. real ability) do not form cliques as easily as people without (i.e. the wannabes).  The mediocre usually select people like themselves - to insure no one upsets the apple cart.  People with talent usually want to improve that talent... not rest on it.

Joe AA.
Friday, July 19, 2002

> I can't see how something that gives results is bad, nor how
> something that is bad can give results.

I was thinking of this cute anecdote:  "As for the concern over Six Sigma, Welch retorts: 'I don't give a damn if we get a little bureaucracy as long as we get the results. If it bothers you, yell at it. Kick it. Scream at it. Break it!'''

http://www.businessweek.com/1998/23/b3581001.htm

I know that Welch might be part myth, but hey...

Sammy
Friday, July 19, 2002

Sammy...

Of course Jack Welch wasn't advocating bureaucracy, just defusing a complaint.  It is difficult to kick people with cushy tushy's off of their comfortable fantasy world centers.

Joe AA.
Sunday, July 21, 2002

Hugh,

I saw this article and thought you might like it:

"MBAs no longer worth extra cash"

http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story2&cid=677&e=3&u=/usatoday/20020722/bs_usatoday/4294940

X. J. Scott
Monday, July 22, 2002

Hugh comes across as being p*ssed.  Maybe his job was outsourced to India by some Harvard MBA/McKinsey consultant that didn't know what he was doing?

the cluetrain
Monday, July 22, 2002

XY, thanks for the story. They're everywhere at the moment! Great.

Cluetrain, no I haven't had my job outsourced. It's just that I have worked with MBA's and I found them really, really lacking.

Hugh Wells
Monday, July 22, 2002

> Hugh comes across as being p*ssed.

Personally, I have never sensed that.

Sarain H.
Monday, July 22, 2002

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