I miss my job in Ohio – no, really! Well, what I really miss are the people from work, and the discussions and arguments during lunchtime. We always sat together and would argue about varied topics; nor were we politically-correct, which was a refreshing change from today’s ever-so-careful workforce. Some of these friendships still remain, despite my now being in New England.
In one such conversation, I was asked – as an “Evolutionist” – what I thought was the biggest innovation in the history of life aside from the start of life itself. That was a difficult question. Could it be photosynthesis, without which life would eventually have used up the food supply – never mind its creation of an oxygen atmosphere? The conquest of land? Intelligence? I finally realized that the single biggest “innovation” that had the largest impact on life was – sex.
I’m not trying to jazz up a column with tawdry material; this column is family-friendly. But biologically, what is sex? It is the exchange and mixing of different genetic materials with the resulting increase in variation – i.e., trying new things. This variation, coupled with competitive forces (e.g., the need for energy, environmental change, disease resistance, competition, etc.) selecting on the advantages and disadvantages of those variations, drives evolution at a rate much faster than evolution-by-mutation, which had been sole previous engine of change. (Indeed, it’s been posited that much of the subconscious attraction between couples dating comes from scent, and the scent-based cues that the other has different immunities from oneself, with the resulting desire to co-mingle those immunities for offspring with healthier prospects.)
Indeed, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote about this in his classic sci-fi short story, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” In this tale advanced aliens who have evolved purely by mutation – thus ponderously slowly – discover Earth. The alien’s chief scientist sees the enormous diversity of life on Earth and realizes that it springs from the variation created by sexual reproduction – a notion scoffed at by the ship’s commander. The story’s – um, climax – is left as an exercise for the curious reader, but the theme is that the scientist recognizes that the rapid evolutionary pace on Earth fueled by the genetic variation from sex will enable humans to rapidly out-evolve his own species – with obvious implications to his own species’ survival.
So how does this apply to business? Simple. Today’s economy is hyper-competitive; companies are competing not only for business with domestic rivals, but are facing challenges from foreign sources as never before. The pressures to develop new products, services, and processes just to remain viable are staggering. So how are many of today’s companies reacting to this enormous threat? By reducing variation in their “innovation genes.”
In my email, I have a catch-phrase: “The best place to find an ‘out of the box’ thinker is – outside the box!” Yet, as I’ve written about before, companies searching for people hire with laser precision. Job requirements are exhausting lists of “must have” qualifications, often to the point that the only person who could apply for the position is the person who just left it.
A few years ago I read an article in a medical device trade magazine. It talked about Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (my Master’s thesis topic, actually) in glowing terms, and touted the concept of designing products to take into account capabilities of the manufacturing processes that would be used to make the product. I was confused as the tone of the article conveyed that these were new concepts, while I’d been doing - developing! - these self-same concepts for years. My point, of course, is that when you only look internally within a company or industry, you miss what’s happening outside. Just because your industry has specific requirements doesn't mean there aren't opportunities to learn from outside - which, alas, seems to be the mentality of several industries.
Yet, in my career, the best and most revolutionary ideas have been concepts developed because I didn’t know it couldn’t be done yet. Naivete has value; experience breeds complacency. This is not to say that people should hire engineers to become doctors, or accountants to be engineers, etc., but rather to point out that “fresh eyes” from outside the discipline or industry looking at a problem are often a great source for challenging the status quo and driving the creative process that results in innovative processes. And often in the process of learning the details of the product or service, people from the outside see a different path to eliminating problems.
One example comes from my experience in automotive climate control – the car’s air conditioning system. Parts of the system protruded into the engine compartment. To keep the heat from the engine from melting the plastic, these pieces were covered with a heat shield. These heat shields were typically made from formed fiberglass panels –fiberglass encased in resin, really – and covered with an aluminum foil… they were heavy, expensive, and the workers hated them because no matter what the supplier did to try and smooth the edges, glass fibers would get into their hands. Or they’d wear gloves, which was also very uncomfortable and/or inconvenient given the other tasks at the station.
I’d recently transferred in from automotive lighting, and was assigned the task of cost-reducing these heat shields. I played around with a number of possibilities, invited new suppliers in, and was evaluating the possibilities when it occurred to me to ask: What did this heat shield do? What was its function?
This was the core question, and the answer was not easy to find. Indeed, these things had been in cars so long it was just carried from vehicle line to vehicle line with the implicit assumption they were needed. In due time, however, I had my answer: they did not really provide a physical insulation, but only served to reflect radiated engine heat.
Aha! The light (pardon the pun) dawned! I came from automotive lighting – reflectivity is what we did for a living. So I proposed that we make the case out of a higher temperature material, and coat it with a reflective coating. I did a slew of heat transfer equation studies that showed that this, in fact, would work. What was the response of management to my innovative proposal? “That won’t work, but go ahead and get those 'science-project' impulses out of your system.”
I went ahead. In cooperation with the company’s R&D labs, who live for this kind of abstract project, we converted a small oven into an engine compartment simulator. We tested the current heat shield, varied coatings and base materials, and found - - can you guess? - - that the concept did, in fact, work. I had the data, blessed by people with Ph.D.s in the company’s own research lab.
The skepticism was still rampant, but now that my ideas were Ph.D. approved ideas, I could not be shunted aside so easily. I refined my cost models, showing that not only was the idea a net benefit in total material cost, but eliminated labor, the fibers, and reduced part storage requirements at the line with the associated reductions in material handling. Full-scale prototyping was grudgingly approved. (With, I might editorialize, a lot of behind-the-hand scoffing that this would actually work in real life.)
I arranged for a “Pull Down” test; the harshest test available for the performance of an air conditioning system: Soak the car under a simulated sunload, mimicking the Arizona summer, and then turn on the car and – at idle, the worst condition for air flow – see how fast the car cools, and at what temperature the inside stabilizes.
So what was the result? Can you guess? My idea matched the performance of the existing design. My cost models showed that, rolled across every line in the plant, we’d have saved over $750,000 annually in materials and labor. That number didn’t include the softer numbers such as safety, floor space, material handling, etc.
I didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so I went ahead and did it. Fresh eyes, and a willingness to try something completely new based on experience from a different product family.
That company was, actually, very good at training. One of the things they trained us in was in the proper formation of teams. What was important in a really effective team? Diversity.
No, not the PC-esque diversity that pays attention to skin’s melanin content, ovaries vs. testes, or how many handicapped people can be hired to fill out a quota. I mean real diversity: of experience, of perspective, of thought, and of personality. (Which, being corporate America, was a shining example of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, but that’s another posting entirely.)
So what do a host of other sources say about forming truly effective teams?
“Cross-pollination of perspectives, ideas and skills enables a business to profit from what is today known as ‘our greatest asset — our people.’" - Nick Corcodilos, (Please note that I’ve linked to Nick’s site, Ask The Headhunter, and highly recommend everything he’s written.)
“Effective teamwork is based upon … people who exhibit a variety of styles or approaches...” Successful Work Teams – Ex-employer’s Team Training Manual
“Even an [experienced] engineer who knows nothing about your industry should be able to find something amiss or a potential cost saving.” - Dirk Willard, Old dogs can learn new tricks, Chemical Processing magazine, November 2007
“Diversity of thought matters. Many of us have a tendency to seek answers to our challenges by confining our search to established expert resources... Paradoxically, qualifications can act as constraints to creativity… [N]ovel answers frequently come from the fringes...” - Alph Bingham, CoFounder of Innoventive, Interview in CIO Magazine, July 15, 2007
“A workplace is the most interesting, the most creative and the most apt to be cutting edge when it's diverse.” - Sam Polcer, “Seeds of Talent”; GO Magazine, Nov. 2007
Remember how I said companies were not seeking real diversity of their team members? Let me tell you about an experience I had when I was job searching. Well, actually, two experiences.
The first was my attending a convention for Human Resources. Yes, I use that term deliberately – not following my previous post’s admonition because, to a person, every attendee was typical of the current people-are-things mentality in today’s corporate jungle. Notable among the day’s events were the breakout sessions, one of which discussed personality testing of candidates as a screening mechanism. Naturally, it was being run by a company that provided such on-line testing, but that’s an aside to my point, which is this: Personality testing was touted not just to identify potential strengths and weaknesses of a candidate, or as a way to help find good directions to guide a current employee in further development, but to choose and screen out candidates who did not closely match the idealized personality profile of the position being filled.
Just think about how insidious this is. Companies are screening out people based on the ability or inability to show the proper personality for a given position. Just imagine – a group of Accountants who all think alike tasked with developing a new way to achieve a faster end-of-quarter closing. A team of Engineers who all think alike assigned to brainstorm, create, test, and launch an innovative new product. And so on.
More terrible, the hidden implication is that by hiring a person to be the "perfect engineer" (or whatever) a company is hiring to fill that slot with little-to-no consideration of the person's future potential. Sure, companies have a need for an engineer, but one of the roles of Personnel (note, I used the right word this time) is to work to bring on board people who can grow and develop in the organization in addition to helping fill the immediate needs.
“If we’re all thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” General George S. Patton. I love this quote., and I'd like to add to it: "If we're not all thinking, then it won't be long before all of us are no longer needed."
Real creativity, I believe, comes from conflict. Yin and Yang, ideas being challenged and sacred cows barbecued. It comes from people butting heads, arguing, and yes, sometimes getting a little hot under the collar. In my experience, every time – and I mean every time – such teams find better solutions. But, of course, there’s a flip side to that benefit: The need for direct management involvement.
You see, managers of truly diverse teams that focus on creativity and its application innovation have to wrangle, shape, guide, and resolve conflicts. All of these things take work. Far easier, organizationally- and workload-speaking, to jimmy the hiring process to hire only people who think and act alike… because then managers don’t have to do these things. The departments seem to function smoothly, indeed, the whole organization does. Because everyone is approaching everything with the same mindset, personality, and experiences. Thus does discord vanish and harmony appear at the price, hidden, of losing that conflict from which creativity flows. I’ll opine that any department that truly functions well with no conflict is one missing out on its potential.
Here's where personality testing can help. It can help the people understand their strengths and weaknesses, in how they behave as an individual, as well as how they interact and work with others. I've learned enormous things from the MBTI, DiSC, and other varied indicators of my own personal style and how I interact with others.
I promised you a second story, and I’ll keep it short. Back in 2005 I networked my way to the hiring manager of a medical device/biotech company. They were forming a new department, one dedicated primarily to disposable plastic medical devices. That hiring manager and I had a couple of great phone conversations (this was when I was living in Vermont, so meeting in person was not convenient). He asked for and was wowed by my resume. But before he could meet with me, even just for a chat, I had to go through a personality test.
Obviously, I failed that test. Most of the questions were either-or, when the real answer was inevitably “it depends on the situation”. There was no room for human judgment, the situation, or anything other than whether I matched closely enough to their idealized engineer.
So what’s the conclusion? There are several.
First, personality tests as a screen, let alone the determining screen, during the hiring process are tools for the lazy. They provide a convenient way for HR people to avoid having to actually weed through resumes in favor of letting an internet program do it for them. (As opposed to a useful tool once the person is on board - what matters is the ability to do the work, not work harmoniously all the time.) Let me caveat this by saying I've met many great Personnel people, who understand that since people are their business, they need to invest the time in truly assessing those persons as individuals, not using coarse screens that weed out far too many gems simply because they don't pass one filter or another.
Second, they are tools for management to look good by avoiding conflicting personalities; the cost, however, is a team that will always perform poorly compared to a team formed from disparate – diverse – personalities, experience sets, etc. Again, I've met a number of really good managers; one of the best understood that my personality and interaction with people needed work, and rather than shunt me aside, challenged me to develop and grow. And here, such testing can be extraordinarily useful in helping to shape that growth path as well as show stronger routes for professional development within the organization.
Third, by focusing on candidates who are the perfect experiential fit, companies lose out on that “fresh eyes” perspective that can be so critical to developing truly innovative solutions to product and process problems. As a corollary, companies that only hire incestuously from within the chosen population miss out on best practices from other industries – practices from which they could learn and thus gain a competitive advantage.
Lastly, people don’t want to do the same thing over and over. Most people want the challenge to grow and develop new skills. Hiring the “imperfect fit” gives people that chance, resulting in more motivated, grateful, and loyal people.