Change how you recruit, train, and evaluate people

If you are in a managerial position, you should be concerned about how to get the best people to your team and how to help them do their job optimally.

A recent publication from the National Research Council looked at how the intelligence community functions and proposed some changes. Here are highlights from their chapter dedicated to the workforce.

Recruit better

Look for people with good cognitive abilities—rather than subject matter expertise. The report calls those stable psychological abilities and malleable ones. Stable abilities—including cognitive performance—take longer to develop but they are more transportable, and an individual with higher cognitive abilities will get most out of training. So, while it’s important to have subject matter expertise, it can be acquired on the job more readily. What is more important is ensuring that your people have the psychological abilities to adapt to new situations quickly.

Don’t rely on unstructured interviews. If you do, you might be biased toward hiring someone that you personally like, someone like you, which only favors groupthink. Instead, think about the type of interview that will most tell you about how someone performs on the job. Management consultants rely on case interviews because it forces the interviewee to show how they think on their feet when facing a new problem.

Ensure that your team is sufficiently diverse. If your team faces complex problems, you’ll want a group that can attack them from different angles. Having people that think in different ways allows you to do that. In the words of the report: “[D]ifferentiation of expertise—that is, distributing knowledge and abilities among numerous individuals each with specific areas of expertise—promotes greater exploration and innovation.”

Train better

Start by establishing a common language. If you’ve done a good job recruiting people, chances are that your team will be diverse, with limited common expertise. So your first step should be to establish a common ground. In my class and our corporate training we do this by going over the problem-solving process as a whole, so that we all talk about the same thing, and reviewing key tools: problem definition cards, issue trees, hypotheses-testing frameworks, etc. We also agree that we’ll speak in a way that all in the group will understand; that is, no over-specialized jargon or assuming that the audience knows more of the problem than they actually do.

Embrace continuous learning. Consider the famous IBM story:

Once, [an employee of Tom Watson, the founder of IBM] made a huge mistake that cost the company millions of dollars. The employee, upon being called into Watson’s office, said “I suppose you want my resignation.” “Are you kidding,” replied Watson. “I just spent ten million dollars educating you.” (source)

That quite the right attitude towards mistakes. But the point is, even if you have the right attitude, experience remains an expensive teacher. So you shouldn’t think of continuous learning as an impediment to getting the job done; it is an investment that you’re doing now that will pay dividends for years to come. A corollary is that it shouldn’t be just for new hires.

If possible, give your people simpler problems to solve first. Ideally you want to build a positive environment where people become increasingly confident in their abilities. So, whenever possible, start with giving them simple problems to solve.

Give them good feedback. Good means timely, precise, and constructive.

If you face infrequent problems, consider using simulations. Pilots spend countless hours in simulators before flying jetliners. That way, when they face a real emergency, it isn’t all new; they’ve already experienced something similar.

Provide a structure that fosters interactions between your employees. Promote mentoring, water-fountain talks, cross training… Any activity where your employees talk to each other is good. Especially if they have to go out of their circle of relations to make new connections, e.g. with much more senior/experienced colleagues.

Reward better

Choose the most effective reward system. Recognize that you have two types of individuals: ones that are extrinsically motivated—e.g. driven by salary, recognition, and promotions—and others that are intrinsically motivated, that is, convinced that they are doing the right thing and deriving satisfaction out of that. While everyone will appreciate a higher salary, you can motivate the second kind by showing how important their job is and letting them use and improve their skill set.

Focus on systemic evaluation, not one of individuals. In the end, what matters is how good your entire group is, so step back and look at the contribution of each member considering the group as a unit. One way to do that is to reward those that go out of their ways to help their colleagues succeed.

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