Do we want success or failure?

Reading this interview of Steve Ballmer, I was struck by his answer to the question, “How do you assess job candidates?”:

If they come from inside the business, the best predictor of future success is past success. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s a reasonable predictor.

This “success breeds success” mindset is, I think, mistaken. It is a relation of the thought process that leads to books like Good to Great. Just because a person or business has been successful does not mean that we know why they have been successful. Their previous success may just be a question of luck, rather than good judgment. Correlation does not imply causation — that is just sloppy thinking. (Unsurprisingly, Ballmer recommends one of Jim Collins’s books as a particularly useful text.)

An example of a better approach is provided in this Edutopia video by Randy Nelson of Pixar, talking about the way that NASA selected its astronauts.

Their first search was this depth-based search, and what they found was there are far too many people who were deep — who were very good. They couldn’t use that as a filter. They realised what they wanted was not merely people who were successful, and in fact maybe that was what they couldn’t afford, in their depth-based search. They needed to find people who had failed and recovered.

Those who had failed and hadn’t recovered were not applying — they weren’t around any more (we’re talking about test pilots, for the most part) — that filters out one group!

So that ended up being the way that the astronaut corps was chosen — they were looking for people who had not simply avoided failure, but rather those who had seen failure and had figured out how to turn it into something. The core skill of innovators is error-recovery, not failure-avoidance.

The whole video is not very long, and is full of little gems like this one. It is certainly a much more thoughtful approach to the problem than Steve Ballmer’s.

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