Long ago, when I was fairly new to data analysis and extremely new to supervising, I came up with a genius idea: Moving one crew to a different shift on an open production line would improve overall job sequencing and increase productivity throughout the department.
I met with the crew to announce the change. They pushed back on the short-term inconvenience to their personal lives, which I expected.
But they also questioned my analysis, something I neither expected nor appreciated. I had run numbers. I had created models.
I had also fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that basically says the less you know, the more you think you know, especially if you've gained a little familiarity with a topic. (Or as my grandfather would say, "You know just enough to be really stupid.")
Since I was the boss, I won.
And lost: My idea, however perfect on paper, turned out to be terrible in practice.
A few weeks later, I held another meeting with the crew. "I know you didn't think this would work," I said, "and you were right. I'm moving you back to your original shift."
I felt terrible.
I also felt stupid.
But according to Jeff Bezos, I was actually on the way to becoming smarter.
Smart People Change Their Minds
During a visit some years ago to the software company Basecamp, Bezos said:
"The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking."
According to Bezos, smart people are sometimes right -- but always willing to change their minds.
"(Bezos) doesn't think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait," Basecamp CEO Jason Fried wrote. "It's perfectly healthy ?--? encouraged, even ?--? to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today."
Bezos's perspective might sound strange. It's easy to assume people who have the right answers are smart. And it's definitely easy to assume people who take one position today and another position tomorrow aren't that smart, especially when they're in charge.
Leaders are supposed to have the answers. Leaders are supposed to know.
And so are the employees you hire. You obviously need them to be smart.
But what you really need are people who are adaptable: to recognize and, more important, react when a plan isn't working. To recognize and react when a perspective no longer makes sense. To recognize and react when a current method, strategy, or way of doing business no longer works.
In other words, you need to hire employees who are willing and able to change their minds.
How Can You Identify Adaptable People?
How can you determine whether a job candidate is willing, as Bezos says, to constantly revise their understanding and reconsider problems they thought they'd already solved?
One way is to include a common behavioral interviewing question in the interviews you conduct: "Tell me about a goal you recently achieved. What did your initial plan look like? What worked particularly well?"
One, it's a great icebreaker question. (Candidates who can't talk in detail about a goal they achieved are likely to be terrible candidates.)
Most interviewees will describe a goal that was set for them, a plan that they were in large part given, and the steps they took to achieve the goal.
Which is of course fine, but what you're really looking for are candidates who set their own goals, created their own plans, and then not only followed those plans but adapted to circumstances and changing conditions along the way.
After all, the best employees are able not just to plan well, but also to react and adjust well.
Then go a step further and ask this follow-up question: "Tell me about a goal you didn't manage to achieve. What happened? What did you do as a result?"
Disappointment, adversity, and failure are a part of life -- both professional and personal. That's why everyone has failed. (In fact, most successful people have failed a lot more often than the average person; that's why they're so successful today.)
Most candidates will take responsibility for failing. (People who don't are people you definitely don't want to hire.) Good candidates don't place the blame on other people or on outside factors. They recognize that few things go perfectly, and a key ingredient of success is having the ability to adjust.
Smart people take responsibility. And they also learn key lessons from the experience, especially about themselves.
They see failure as training. That means they can describe in detail what perspectives, skills, and expertise they gained from that training.
And they can admit where they were wrong -- and how they were willing and even eager to change their minds.
To determine whether a potential employee has the intelligence your business needs, don't just focus on how right they've been.
Find out if they are willing to admit when they are wrong.
And are then willing to change their minds.