Summer Rerun: 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. (Until very recently–see below.)  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.)

(Update 9/17/18:  There are some indications that, as full employment gets closer, more employers are willing to compromise on educational requirements, and also experience requirements.)


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 an earlier 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.

10 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: The Five-Pound Butterfly Revisited”

  1. The checklists exist so they must perform some desired function. I suspect that it’s to provide plausible deniability that rejection was based on other grounds.

    The woman may simply not want to marry while maintaining the appearance of desiring marriage, and preferring to date obviously unsuitable men.

    The business knows they can’t get in trouble for rejecting applications lacking specific experience but they could if a member of a protected minority is rejected and the reasons are vauge.

    The college wants to be able to reject academically qualified applicants who studied a lot and lack social skills, while reserving the right to throw out the standard to admit students who lacked the opportunity to complete the checklist.

  2. For a couple of years in the late 1990s, I was interviewing applicants for UC, I medical school. It is interesting to see the stuff that guidance counselors tell kids they need on checklists. Lots of volunteering in hospitals and such. I was looking for experience, probably obsolete in the Obamacare era, of responsibility.

    One girl was the daughter of Persian exiles that fled the Revolution,. Her father was reduced to running a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop. He had a heart attack and the daughter ran the business for a year interrupting her premed education.

    I thought that was a big plus for her. I don’t know if the admissions committee agreed.

    Another had been in the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war and worked in an aid station. He got out and moved to San Jose CA where he lived with his brother, learned English, attended junior college and senior college while working nights at Sun Microsystems. He was worried he would be discriminated against because he was Iranian.

    I gave him a high recommendation

    The staff of the admissions committee told me I was the only faculty interviewer who got reports on applicants to them promptly.

    Of course nearly all doctors are now employees of big hospital corporations or chains of Urgent Care centers.

  3. There are some indications that, as full employment gets closer, more employers are willing to compromise on educational requirements, and also experience requirements.

    In my town the labor market is so tight–especially for entry level jobs–that the mirror test is being employed: if a mirror held below the applicant’s nose is fogged, the applicant is hired.

  4. My wife told me she had a list of 10 things she was looking for in a husband. I scored twelve. Second marriage for both of us.

  5. I’m reading a biography of DeGaulle. His marriage was arranged between his domineering mother and the bride’s family.

    His wife had some sharp comments about her mother-in-law later.

  6. This reminds me of when I was looking for work in 2003 and a lot of listings were looking for people with years of experience with Sarbannes Oxley compliance, even though the law had passed in 2002.

  7. “It is interesting to see the stuff that guidance counselors tell kids they need on checklists. Lots of volunteering in hospitals and such.”

    I believe that is because universities expect it—and the more the volunteeringsuggests a Progressive ideology the better.

  8. the more the volunteering suggests a Progressive ideology the better.

    My older son was applying to college in 1983. The counselor at his high school told him he needed an essay on an important experience. He had sailed to Hawaii with me in 1981 as a 16 year old.

    He wrote his essay on that and was scolded by the counselor who asked if he really wanted to go to college.

    What experiences do most 16 year olds have?

    It didn’t help. He turned out to be a Democrat trial lawyer.

  9. As the pool of people who actually have worked and done the job shrinks, and institutions grow, it leads to a degrading of what will be accepted. I am a retired Peace Officer. My former agency is growing driven by population growth. Long ago when the world was new and I applied, I had to have 2 years of college in the field, OR two years of experience in the field. I had both. The application process itself was far more rigorous and involved a combination of obstacle course and firearms qualification just to be allowed to take the written test.

    It is not coincidental that in those days everybody in the chain of command had years of experience working the line.

    Today, you can apply with a GED. Where before you had to have a clean background check, you are now allowed to have non-felony conviction(s) as long as you are clear of parole/probation. And they have cut the pay and slashed the retirement for new hires.

    It is also not coincidental that the chain of command at pretty much all levels are more political/politically correct than line oriented, and the current Democrat appointed head of the Department has no practical experience and has expressed a less than favorable opinion of the entire concept of law enforcement.

    For some reason, they are having trouble getting enough recruits able to fog a mirror, the good ones are going to other agencies, and I am sitting back watching [from a distance] some really stupid things happening that are going to make some shyster lawyers rich.

    I stayed for a longer career than most, so my generation is now retired, and the ones we trained are within a very few years of retirement. After they are all gone . . .

    Corporate culture is everything.

    I suspect that institutions in all fields are going through the same thing in their own field specific forms. It is going to take something fairly catastrophic to change that kind of institution to make it work again.

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