The Five-Pound Butterfly Revisited

Several years ago, the WSJ wrote about the tendency of many companies to do hiring based on a long string of highly-specific (and excessively-specific) requirements. One person interviewed remarked that “Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn’t mean there is a shortage of butterflies.”

Since that article was written, the five-pound butterfly effect has probably gotten worse rather than better in the business world. But hunting for five-pound butterflies also seems to be increasingly affecting other areas of life, including college admissions and the search for love and marriage.

First I’ll talk about the five-pound butterfly effect in a business context and then develop its applicability to other areas. The WSJ article mentioned a company that makes automobile bumper parts and was looking for a factory shift supervisor. They eliminated all candidates who didn’t have a BS degree, even though many had relevant experience, and also insisted on experience with the specific manufacturing software that was in use at the plant. It took six months to fill this job (during which time the position was being filled by someone who wouldn’t ultimately be chosen for it.) Another company, Wabtec, which makes components for railcars and buses, insisted on knowledge of a specific version of the computer-aided design system it uses, even though the differences between that version and the earlier version were not all that great.

And as the article (which focused mainly on engineering jobs) didn’t mention…there were certainly talented salespeople who didn’t get hired this week because they lacked specific experience with the particular sales automation or customer resource management system being used..knowledge that they could have easily picked up during their first week or two on the job.

As I said in my original post inspired by the WSJ article: It’s a basic reality of life that you can’t optimize everything at once. So, if you insist on a perfect fit for certain things, you are probably getting less of some other attributes–and these may be ones that matter more. I’d personally rather have a salesman who has demonstrated (for example) skill at managing the customer politics in a large and complex sale than one who has specific experience with the Snarkolator CRM system. It’s a lot easier to train for the second than for the first.

Similarly, if a newly-hired mechanical engineer doesn’t work out, the cause will probably not be his lack of experience with the latest version of a CAD system. More likely, it will be a lack of good design intuition…or poor interpersonal skills…or an inability to integrate mechanical design with electrical and electronics aspects of the same product…or fit with the cultural style of the organization. Maybe he comes from an environment where he was closely supervised, and the new environment is more open and requires more self-starting…or vice versa. These things are not easily represented in “checklist” form, as is knowledge of a specific software package and version, but they matter a lot. The problem with increasingly long lists of requirements is that they tend to shortchange those things that cannot be easily compressed into a yes/no format, and also tend to screen out potential employees whose extreme excellence on certain criteria could well make up for their deficiencies in others.

Moving from work to love…there are apparently a lot of single people (especially women, it seems) who have developed long checklists for prospective partners. (It’s rumored that one woman had something like 350 items on her “mandatory” list.) As in the work environment, long checklists tend to delay the search..but more important, they can shortchange the factors that matter most. If someone insists on a prospective husband who is an investment banker with a good sense of humor and cooks gourmet meals and really likes kids, then she might, if she is very lucky, eventually find someone who satisfies all these criteria to some degree…but the sense of humor might not be quite as great, and the liking for kids not quite as strong, as if she were willing to compromise on the investment banker and the gourmet meals criteria. (And, of course, there are plenty of factors that operate below the conscious level and can’t be meaningfully represented on a checklist at all.)

The college admissions process, too, seems to be increasingly focused on satisfying very long checklists, to the extent that many kids devote their high school years largely to checklist-satisfying. How many potential talents and interests go undeveloped or underdeveloped because of this emphasis? (As I’ve mentioned before, it would be very interesting for someone to do a study of college admissions officers and their backgrounds and values.)

In my 2008 post on butterflies and hiring, I observed that “There are many beautiful butterflies in the world, and success in hiring will go to those who develop an astute appreciation of butterly beauty. It’s not easy, and it can’t be learned entirely from books–but it’s very worthwhile.” This point also applies to areas of life other than hiring employees.

Checklists definitely have their place: in aviation, for example, they are indispensable, and in medicine they should be used a lot more than they are. But they are no substitute for thought and intuition…and courage.

18 thoughts on “The Five-Pound Butterfly Revisited”

  1. Long ago and young I was a partner in a growing software company. I hired many people who needed the ability to write and work with a complex software system, more complicated than it needed to be. I assumed that I could hire by talking, asking questions, and forming a gut feeling about how the person would do.

    I looked back at my first five hires in despair. One was great, two were mediocre, and two had to go. My record was 1:2:2, and that was not good enough.

    So, I did what any manager should do. I read a book about interviewing after browsing the shelves of a large bookstore. I learned about all of the bad assumptions I had been making, and how lazy I had been in the interviews. I resolved that I had to become a great and focused interviewer, because I would only hire someone who I evaluated as genuine and competent, and the interview would be wasted if I was unsure of the evaluation at the end.

    My new approach yielded three hires who were great, one mediocre, and one failure out of five. That was acceptable, and I became better over time.

    I think the business world is full of bad interviews and people who think that they can hire by forming a gut feeling. Higher management is in despair. They react to their dismal results with the wrong response, that they can do better by requiring more specific and longer experience, listing everything possible about the work environment.

    This fits in with Human Resource departments looking for expanded responsibility. HR sells management on the benefits of Scientific Selection, and steps in to compose advertisements, screen resumes, and sometimes do first interviews.

    This doesn’t really help, along with delaying the hiring process and increasing its costs. Like a government agency, the continuing response is to “do more of the same” rather than revise the failed process and train the hiring mangers in how to discover and select for the skills which they really need.

  2. As someone desperately looking for a job, I think this is right on target. It’s another manifestation of Tayloristic thinking: the hiring people are looking for machine parts instead of persons. “We need to hire a DRJ-294 with an 24mm left flange and three D-ring attachments on the lower surface.” You may have scaled Mount Everest, been elected mayor, and written a five-volume treatise on computational linguistics, but hey, if you’ve got a 26mm flange instead of an 24mm flange, well, clearly you can’t be qualified.

    And of course many colleges and universities are happy to capitalize on the phenomenon and make money by selling certificates. “You can’t get that job without a DRJ-294 certificate, and we have created a special DRJ-294 certificate program for only $3000. And if you hope to get a promotion in your job next year, you’ll have to come back and buy a DRJ-295 certificate from us for another $3000.” Thus do many colleges actively destroy the idea of liberal education, which should advertise: “We produce intelligent, thoughtful, creative individuals who can speak and write well, and who will quickly be able to learn the basics of most any task they are presented with.”

  3. Andrew – I am a small business owner myself and still interview with my gut, just like everything else I do. For better or worse. My record is better than yours though as far as keepers.

    When hiring, especially for outside sales, I am always happy to get people from outside of my industry – in fact I prefer it. I love getting fresh perspectives. And in the end, selling is selling, no matter if it is computer chips, donkeys, or windows.

  4. Andrew…agree that interviewing is very important, very difficult (although it superficially may seem easy), and the skills are subject to improvement by those who work at it. One of the most useful classes I ever took was a 1-hour audiotape on interviewing skills, mostly featuring bad examples. (One interviewer spent so much time talking about himself that the woman he was interviewing hardly got a word in edgewise…at the conclusion of the interview, he told her he thought she’d do fine!)

    I don’t think, though, that the long-checklist approach is usually a reaction to bad results from gut-feel hiring..I think it’s more typically knee-jerk Taylorism, combined with an attempt to reduce the absolute flood of resumes that every open position attracts.

    Good HR people are worth their weight in gold (and they do exist), but their role should be to assist the process, not to control it.

  5. To confirm RJO’ “machine part/stamped&certified” experience: here’s a post by Tim Newman, one in a series of his “Unrealistic job adverts”.
    He is a British engineer in Oil industry, who just finished his contract on Sakhalin, moved to Thailand and started looking for a new job.

    So maybe this “taylorist” approach to hiring is not US-localized, but an international/global tendency. I have had similar experience myself.

    I am not sure, though, that analogy with choosing a partner is totally justified.
    The goals might be similar – speaking in “merchandising” terms, to get the best offering on the market and most suitable for this particular buyer’s needs – but there is more at stake. Women are usually looking for long-term commitment, there is no “probationary period”; those who do “trial and error/3-months marriages” are generally frown at, and eventually loose the “choosing” status. So a woman has to decide once and for life, the risk is too great for error – no wonder many want to do preliminary weeding and minimize emotional preferences – which, we are told from all sides, are too fleeting for such a fundamental decision. So pragmatic types systematize the search with long lists of characteristics. Not entirely unreasonable, I would say, if you clearly set your priorities straight. In David’s example, those would be a) investment banker +b)loves children. Gourmet cooking could be taught – and even if not, could be obtained elsewhere and paid for with investment banker’s earnings.

    Naturally, such heartless pragmatism appalls many people – men as well as women – and here lies another extreme: looking for a “soul mate”, regardless of his/her ability or readiness to support a family, or any other quality, important in the long run. No wonder many marriages based on “love at first sight” are dissolved after a year or two.

  6. The admission of women to Ivy League colleges and to medical schools (I don’t have much experience with law schools although two of my kids are lawyers) has taken care of the matrimonial question for many. Charles Murray, in one of the less noted sections of “The Bell Curve,” expressed some reservations about the creation of an elite with little or no contact with average people. He believed that the tendency of Ivy League graduates to marry each other tended to shift the mean IQ levels higher in that group and reduce their experience with non-Ivy League people.

    Medical school, and the high percentage of women students, has had the effect of doctors marrying each other instead of nurses. I have noticed that a lot of my female medical students worry a lot about marriage and family. One told me (I have never checked her facts) that women doctors have the highest divorce rate. I have also noticed quite a few women doctors, especially surgeons, marry men who are not professionals. I see a fair number married to paramedics, firemen and policemen. I wonder of there is some calculation there as the men work shifts and may be more available for child care.

  7. Federal HR offices have gone overboard on entry hurdles. While I was a senior Foreign Service Officer, I would not have met entry criteria for most of the jobs that formed my office. There’s far too much emphasis put on academic records and far too little on whether someone can actually do the job.

  8. I remember an ad from early in the boom days. They wanted someone with 10 years of internet experience in an industry with only a five year history.

    For engineers, the secret has become lacing your resume with buzz words. The file gets screened for these key words by computer. If you don’t score an adequate match of your key words with the computer’s set of key words, your resume is ignored and never gets to the hiring manager.

    I see that more and more, networking and personal interactions are critical for breaking through the inefficient gatekeepers.

  9. I see that more and more, networking and personal interactions are critical for breaking through the inefficient gatekeepers.

    And so the result of making the hiring process ever more “scientific” is to cause the easily-manipulated old-boy network to become even more important than it was before.

  10. HR people, for the most part, are completely unqualified to evaluate any resume, other than an HR position. This is especially true for technical positions. I found that by taking all the “requirements” listed in a job posting, cutting and pasting them into my resume, and reformatting all the cut and paste material into font size 1 and white text coloring, my resume always gets looked at, usually by the individual who will supervision the position.

    Now, I only do this for positions I truly think I might be qualified for and I have had 4 job offers in the past year. Not bad considering the shape of the metro Chicago job market.

  11. I think HR is primarily concerned with complying with labor law and avoiding lawsuits. They default to meaningless metrics in order to produce some kind of “objective” criteria that they can use to shield themselves from legal challenge. Juries apparently regard, “He did well in the interview and seemed to know what he was talking about” as deeply suspicious.

    HR as a profession also has a built in incentive to create obscure hiring practices in order to increase dependence on them.

    There is a near complete loss of honest references from previous employers. Fearful of being sued, employers no longer reliably report an individuals previous employment history. You can’t even reliably count on knowing whether a person got fired, laid off or left on their own. Used to be you could establish a pattern. If someone got fired once it didn’t tell you much. If someone got fired three times in a row, you knew something was wrong. Now everyone walks into the initial interview with the presumption of being pure as the driven snow.

    With all other sources of information cut off, the lamplight effect leaves us mulling over the information we can get, which is usually credentials, regardless of how relevant they are to actual problem of hiring a good employee.

    I think the same problem dogs personal relationships as well. With the breakdown of traditional communities and broad personal networks, individual no longer have a means of evaluating a potential mate. People no longer have personal reputations. When you live in a small town or a closely knit community of any kind both your sins and virtues are well know and easy for others to discover.

  12. Shannon Love – “Fearful of being sued, employers no longer reliably report an individuals previous employment history.” You are correct, sir. All anyone ever gets anymore is dates of employment from me. Not what I prefer, but I have cover my own arse and I didn’t make the rules, just playing by them.

  13. “Fearful of being sued, employers no longer reliably report an individuals previous employment history.”
    That’s fair because it’s a 2way deal. Just as I don’t tell my future employers about idiotic [money-and customers-losing] business practices and the way employees were treated at my former place of work, their opinion of me as an employee they should keep for themselves – unless I ask for it.

    [Figuratively speaking. Personally, I always check “yes, contact my former employer for references” box. I also have tons of recommendation letters from partners/principals of the companies I used to work for.]

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