Say you have an incredibly complex problem to crack and you want to put together the best team possible to find a creative solution. How do you go about hiring team members?
Most managers would start with excellence. Thinking that smart people come up with smart solutions, they'd try to figure out how to find the top performers with every skill required by the team. If you need a data scientist, then you look for best data scientist you can lure to your organization, right?
This thinking sounds as obvious, but according to Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, this obsession with quality and performance can actually hamstring your team. Instead of obsessing over hiring "the best," you should obsess over diversity, he argues in Aeon.
Why diversity beats meritocracy
When Page says diversity, he's not talking about any sort of well-meaning exercise in box ticking regarding candidates' background. What he means is a diversity of cognitive styles, skills, and knowledge (though you would assume that a team with this sort of diversity would also tend to be more diverse according to traditional measures like gender, age, and ethnicity.)
And Page isn't insisting on diversity out of political correctness. His point in the thought-provoking piece (and assumedly in his new book The Diversity Bonus), is that true diversity of though will result in greater creativity then hunting for "the best."
"The complexity of modern problems often precludes any one person from fully understanding them," Page writes in the article. "Designing an aircraft carrier... requires knowledge of nuclear engineering, naval architecture, metallurgy, hydrodynamics, information systems, military protocols, the exercise of modern warfare and, given the long building time, the ability to predict trends in weapon systems."
This complexity, he continues, "undermines the principle of meritocracy: the idea that the 'best person' should be hired." Instead on looking for those with the shiniest golden resumes or top test scores, you need to look for the person who brings the right piece of the puzzle to the jigsaw of knowledge you're building.
But wait, you might say, if I know I need, say, a statistician, shouldn't I still try to hire the best statistician I can? Nope, responds Page. That's a total goose chase too.
"Even with a knowledge domain, no test or criteria applied to individuals will produce the best team. Each of these domains possesses such depth and breadth, that no test can exist," he writes, offering the example of neuroscientists. Around 50,000 papers were published in the field last year. Could any sort of analysis actually rank their authors from best to worst in any meaningful way? A moment's reflection suggests not.
In short, there is no best. There is only context. "Given a specific task and the composition of a particular team, one scientist would be more likely to contribute than another. Optimal hiring depends on context. Optimal teams will be diverse," concludes Page.
Monoculture kills creativity.
For you, that means that if you're obsessing about trying to separate super stars from mere top performers when hiring, you're probably not thinking about the more complicated but more fruitful question of what skills, approaches, and mental styles will most benefit your team, and who out there is most likely to bring them.
"Corporations, non-profits, governments, universities and even preschools test, score and hire the 'best'. This all but guarantees not creating the best team. Ranking people by common criteria produces homogeneity," Page warns.
If you're thinking about hiring "the best" you're likely to produce a less than ideal (and probably pretty uniform) mix of backgrounds, and that's going to kill your team's creativity.