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.