October 11, 2015

A Better Way to Make Talent, Product, and Service Decisions

Although the induction of Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith to the Pro Football Hall of Fame would not seem to be a subject consistent with what I normally discuss in this blog, the success of both athletes illustrates two broader points:

  • Traditional measures of ability do not predict success to a sufficient degree to justify how much those who select athletes, executives, managers, or professionals rely on them.
  • What can we learn from the success of those who are outliers in terms of the gap between what traditional predictors of success would say about them and what they have accomplished?

In an article in the November 6, 2010, issue of the New York Times.com entitled “Rice and Smith Inductions a Reminder of the Limits of 40 Times,” reporter Toni Monkovic points out that, by traditional measures, neither Rice nor Smith would have been expected to succeed to the degree they did. Professional scouts look at both height and weight and at the speed football players achieve in the 40-yard dash. By both measures, neither athlete was remarkable. Smith, in particular, the running back with the highest number of career rushing yards all time, was both below average in size (below 6 feet tall) and speed.

Yet both athletes hold career achievement records unlikely to be broken for a long time. In writing about Smith, Monkovic states:

Smith has a bust on display in the Hall of Fame today because of what you couldn’t see. He possessed an intangible gift – an indomitable will to succeed. Smith aspired to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher at an early age and drove himself to that height.

Relative to Rice, she writes: Rice was never relaxed, never satisfied:

The transcript of Rice’s induction speech is worth examining. Here are a few excerpts:

I’m here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life. It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful and that negative thoughts will diminish performance. But not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful. I wasn’t the most physical or the fastest receiver in the NFL, but they never clocked me on the way to the end zone. The reason nobody caught me from behind is because I ran scared.
That old fear of failure again.

This description of “intangible” characteristics is a partial explanation, but it clearly does not completely account for why these athletes were so successful. Smith was short and not known for speed as a running back. However, what Tony Bowen of Totalfoot3.com said about Smith was

What he did have was an innate ability to slither & dart through traffic. He had excellent field vision & also powerful legs with his small frame. He was known for not going down on the first hit. He always fought for that last yard. Smith was a north-south runner & rarely looked to run east-west to try & beat people to the outside. He punished you with his power style running. He also didn’t fumble the ball much. He wouldn’t outrun too many defenders but could find that extra gear when needed.

Jerry Rice was considered a very good athlete, but, aside from his hard work and fear of failure, he took specific steps through fitness drills to increase his explosive power and his cutting agility. Working hard and being afraid of failure were the catalysts, but he had very concrete abilities, which he honed through targeted work, that gave him sufficient advantages over defenders that he could excel over 20 seasons.

What these cases point out is that so-called talent experts find it all too easy to use evaluation methodologies that are inherently incomplete and flawed. The attributes of size and 40-yard dash speed are easy to use, but not informative. It is also easy to attribute ultimate success to “intangible gifts” that, by their nature, are impossible to spot in advance, and, therefore, are impossible to expect an expert to find.

Unfortunately, many people deciding on talent, products and services, or vendors look for easy-to-use evaluation criteria, as opposed to criteria which yield the optimal result. They want to use criteria that insulate them from criticism, and they also want to be in a position to attribute a mistake to factors like “intangibles” that were not knowable.

In my opinion, talent evaluators, whether they are making decisions for college admissions, professional sports team drafts, or jobs, are tempted to select fewer and more quantifiable evaluation criteria, and to stick with them, even when there is overwhelming data that they do not work. This is also true on vendor selections as well, or on decisions on which films to acquire and finance. Why?

Ultimately, the answer is that those in decision-making positions are most concerned with safe harbors. This is not a new characteristic of people in these roles. Years ago, those who decided on which computer systems a company would acquire were always told that they could not get fired selecting IBM, even if it were not close to the best choice at that time. Fortunately, in today’s competitive environment, when IBM wins, it is doing so on the merits, not because it is the politically safe choice.

We need to do a better job holding those who made these decisions accountable for the consequences of not only the bad selections they have made, but the good ones they did not make. The result would be a broader and richer set of evaluation criteria that, over time, would improve the overall talent pool.

I would hope that the next Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice is more likely to be selected by a professional football team than they were. I would hate to think of a sport that did not give outstanding players like them the maximum opportunity to succeed. More broadly, I hope that, over time, we develop more robust and granular ways to make talent, product, and service decisions. We owe to the people who worked their hardest to excel!