On wasting talent

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Steve Jobs

It always astonished me seeing people in an organization performing worse than when they’ve started. Those people are clearly disengaged and they eventually quit. The billion dollar question is how they had become so disengaged. As studies show the high rates of disengagement year after year, HR departments spend more and more on trying to engage those people back. But they are missing the root cause of this process. Even companies that study the Toyota principles fail to recognize this biggest waste – the waste of human talent. Or at least their managers deceive themselves that they have a solid reason to ignore it.

It all starts when people want to do something that is not aligned enough with the company’s goals. Well, we all know how important is alignment. We don’t want to spend resources on things that have no or little value. A good company does its cost/value analysis and decides whether an initiative in worth taking or when to cut it off. There’s nothing wrong with cutting initiatives off by the way – avoiding the sunk-cost fallacy is a crucial skill, not only in business, but there is a cost in that too.

The mistake that is being made however is neither in cost/value analysis nor in cutting off failed initiatives. It’s simply in the cost calculation.

People assume zero cost of not doing anything. It sounds logical – you don’t invest your time, the cost is zero. You invest half your time, the cost is half your earning. Simple math, isn’t it? Except that it’s not. Not investing the time may cause the disengagement, thus leading to higher cost (due lost productivity) over time. As a matter of fact, those 20% time on side projects programs are not some genius business strategy – most such projects are killed – but a way not to spend on the 8th waste. They give the needed balance between wasting time – and money – and wasting talent. Bonus points if they lead to innovation. But that’s not the goal, it’s just a side effect. So when you decide you don’t have the budget to do something – or you don’t want to – think if you can afford not doing it. Yes, you need to balance. As with anything else in life.

On cultural fit and misfit

So people basically want to do a good job. They want to see the meaning of their work. Which is a different thing for different people. Some love to see their product used. They are customer-oriented. They prefer quick-and-dirty – but deployed and used – over clean, well-engineered but otherwise useless software. Other don’t care about the user – they care about the well-engineered software. Some perhaps are in-between – they want their code being good, but they want it also to be it useful for a wide audience. Or some may want to build only software they use – so they have a deep understanding of the user. The point is – people are different. They may want the same in the abstract terms – meaningful work – but their vision widely differs.

So the way you work – if you are customer-centric or not, the amount of planning and designing up-front, the granularity of the tasks – a lot of details in the work depend on the top management (in software development – usually on the CTO) and his vision what is the most effective way to build software. This affects the culture. It’s natural to seek people that would go along with the way you work. Otherwise the people you hire will be frustrated and will eventually leave. Hiring for cultural fit is hiring people for whom you can provide meaningful work.

And then there’s this advice to hire for cultural misfit. Only by by hiring people that see the world differently you can advance.

So there’s a clear conflict here. You need to hire for cultural misfit to get something better then you have. If you want to change the culture, you need to hire people that fit in your envisioned culture and not the one you currently have. If you need innovation, you need diversity, you need to escape group-thinking and so you need to hire for misfit.

But the people that do not fit would not be satisfied and will leave.

So how do you hire for misfit? Or more precisely, how you retain misfit?

The question is how much misfit your management can accommodate? How much you can tolerate? How much the “fits” can tolerate? Do you want everyone to work in the same way or you allow people to act on their own ways? Do you have standards, processes that are must, strict rules or are you loose? Can the misfit act on his way and are the others allowed to follow his lead, or you prefer the new hire to first follow the rules, then break them? How much variance you allow?

Here is an example. You have a very-well organized, priority-sorted backlog of tasks. Everyone have to pick one of the top 3 tasks (you allow people to pick not exactly the top one, if they feel they will be better working on something else, but still you restrict them to one of the top priorities). The new guy picks somethings that is not in the high priority at all. Even worse – does something that is not in the backlog at all. How do you react? Would you allow him to work his way -assuming that his work is good, but it’s not aligned with the priorities you’ve set – or would you let him know what is with priority, so next time he choose better? He ships a feature that do not meet your definition-of-done criteria – perhaps it doesn’t have tests, or it covers only 80% of what is required. Would you ship to your customers, or wait until it fits your criteria? Those might be some extreme cases – but they define how extreme misfit you may accept.

As a misfit is basically two things – a disruption, that can lead to innovation, better performance, new ways of work; and at the same time, well.. I didn’t find a better word, but misfit – a person that feels uncomfortable in your company and perhaps the people in the company feel uncomfortable too. Someone that is not thrilled about the work you do (or the way you do it). So there is a spectrum between the two and how much of the disruption you can accommodate determines whether you will keep the misfit and have a creative disruption or you will lose it and stick to the group think.

What it takes to recruit?

I often receive messages from recruiters that contain a link to a job ad or just the whole body of that very same ad. That’s not what recruitment is about. If I’m interested in a job, I can see the ad on the job boards (or at any other medium) and there’s no need for someone to send me the message. I admit, having someone personally send you the message at least gives you a person to contact in case you are interested; but it’s easy enough to add the contact details in the job ad itself, so anyone can get more information before applying.

In a job market where you get dozens or hundreds of applications for single position, you have to choose the best applicants. This is a hard work, one that requires not only skill, but good intuition as well. When you hardly have any candidates however, which is the case in many high-tech jobs, screening is not enough. You have to attract the candidates first. And if you are going to reach them directly via e-mail or social web sites, it’s an even harder job.

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Paying people to join, to stay or to quit the company?

When I started this blog 5 years ago, I didn’t know the term sign-on bonus. Back then I suggested offering employees a “welcome bonus” as an unconventional way to attract talent. It turned out it was already a common practice – one that gained a lot of popularity in the recent years.

Now, 5 years later, I still think sign-on bonuses need reinvention. What’s different between my original idea and all of the implementations I found is the reasoning behind such a policy, and I find my reasons closer to the “pay-to-quit”, first offered by Zappos in 2008. Има още

Towards unlimited vacation

Originally published at LinkedIn

Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about „unlimited vacation“ – with companies like Netflix, Virgin and 37signals offering employees as many days off as they want. This idea seems radical to most managers and there are even some critics that say such a policy is actually harmful for the employees – some statistics suggest that people who are offered choice of how many days they will take off, actually take less days than usual. Anyway, the movement towards extended vacation is well aligned with the general movement towards more flexibility in the workplace, so lets look at why such policy may or may not work.

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Re-stating the interview questions

There is a set of interview questions so common that we forgot their purpose long ago. Those questions are so common that the candidates are ready with some common answers as well. As recruiters however we ought not to ask the questions we have to, but to get the answers we need. And we may have to re-state those questions in order to get more meaningful answers – often, multiple times during the same interview.

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Should you work for a bad boss?

Originally published at LinkedIn

In his article Should You Ever Work For A Bad Boss? Jack Welch suggest that one should choose the good company over the bad boss. But how can be there a bad boss in a good company? Bosses have a great of impact on the company – on hiring, retention, and overall on the performance of the employees. Keeping a bad boss for sure would cause of lot of damage. Welch’s argument is that the bad boss will eventually quit. My questions is whether this is actually a good company? Има още

Re-motivating people

Originally published at LinkedIn


Everybody talk about disengagement. There are studies showing that huge percent of the employees are disengaged and the idea of lifetime employment has gone. In tech, working 1 to 3 years for the same company is something usual, but not the years worked count – only the years the person was actually engaged in the job. I don’t want to waste time explaining how important engagement is, or proving that the majority of the people are not engaged. I’ll assume that if you continue reading this, you agree with the importance of engagement or you are curious enough to see what I’m going to suggest. Има още

Наемане на пасивни кандидати

Привличането на опитни специалисти е изключително трудна задача, особено в сфери като ИТ, където има много голямо търсене и постоянен недостиг на кадри. Не само, че хората с необходимите умения обикновено имат работа, но дори и да се случи подходящия специалист да си търси такава, то той ще има множество възможности, от които да избира. Много от специалистите, които си търсят работа, имат друга такава, така че и те спадат към така наречените пасивни кандидати – т.е. хора, които не си търсят активно работа.  Има още

The wrong questions

The whole hiring process is broken: ineffective job ads, inability to assess candidates, interviews that do not reveal what we need to know, hiring the wrong people and inability to keep employees. It’s not a surprise that we end up with disengaged people.

The problem is that you can’t know anything from the CV and often you even don’t interview the people you need. The problem is that those people do not apply for a job in your organisation. The problem is that you are offering a job to people, which in the best case scenario reject the offer, in worst – accept it, just to leave in several months. The problem is that after all tests and interviews you really don’t know how the person will perform on the job. In short, the problem is that you are asking the wrong questions.

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