Mullah Nasrudin Hodja was crawling on his hands and knees under the streetlight when he was spotted by a passer-by. “What are you doing, Mullah? Why are you crawling?” asked the man. The mullah answered “I am searching for my key. I have lost it and need it to get back into my home.” The man offers Nasrudin his help, and soon they are both crawling on their hands and knees, under the streetlight. The key, alas, is nowhere to be found. “Are you sure you lost the key here, mullah?”, asks the man. “Oh no, not here,” says Nasrudin, “I must have dropped the key in the park.” Bewildered, the man asks, “then why are you looking for it here?!” “The park is dark”, explains Nasrudin, “here there is light.”

Earlier drafts of this playbook started with the steps, followed by commentary and reflection, but on the advice of my editor I have flipped the two sections. The playbook, you see, is in the correct order, one step after another, but the correct order is counterintuitive, and might make your head explode, or at the very least result in the misapplication the steps.

The most dangerous trap when making hiring decisions (or when making any low certainty / high stakes decision in work and life) is that we become overly focused on what we know at present. Beginnings are relatively uninteresting. We are only going to hire someone once, and when we do, we’ll then end up working with them for years to come. But like Nasrudin, we are too easily tempted to look under the proverbial streetlight. We focus on the candidate’s resumé, their performance in a limited number of interviews, our gut feelings about their personality. We take into consideration the information we have most readily available at the time of making the decision and ignore everything that really matters - the candidate’s future if they are to join our team.

To make a better decision, we can start from the end. Recognize what we know (and especially what we don’t know) about the future and move step-by-step back to present time. Following this order can help us avoid the instinct to tell ourselves a coherent narrative, fooling ourselves into believing that we can be more certain than is reasonable. Instead, we recognize at every step of the way how little we can confidently predict.

Our default answer to any question about the future should be that we simply don’t know. The world is complicated and chaotic, and making predictions is ridiculously hard. From there, we can move to explicitly consider our priors. What is, for example, the average length of an employee’s tenure with the team? If we know nothing else, we have no reason to assume that this time it will be different (so many people get this wrong, often by wildly overestimating and later on discounting a short tenure as single exceptional instance). Now, is there anything else we know that can move our prediction ever so slightly in one direction or another? Perhaps something from the candidate’s history (just remember that the past does not trivially predict the future) or from what they told us? If we do this well, we will likely find ourselves acknowledging that we have very low certainty, but often more than 0. At best, we should come up with several options, and try to assign probabilities to them. Don’t expect it to be easy, it was never going to be.

Step 1: Jamie has left the team

Where are they moving to? Do they keep in touch? How do they look back on their time on your team? How does the team look back on their time in the team? Will you rehire them if you have an opportunity to? What have they left behind for you? A memorable legacy? Scorched earth?

Step 2: A decision has been made to end Jamie’s work in the team

What happened? Did they turn in their notice? What is the reason they’re giving for moving on? Is there a better opportunity for them elsewhere? Or they just had enough on working on your team? What would it have taken to get them to stay? Why weren’t you able to do that? For how long did they stay in the job? Was it worth it? Or maybe you had to let them go? If so, when did it first become clear that you’d have to let them go? Would it have been possible to discover it earlier?

Step 3: Jamie’s hallmark period in the team

This is the time Jamie, you, and everyone on the team is going to remember. Jamie is in their element, doing the thing you will most strongly recognize them for, day in day out. What is it like? What do they excel in? What compromises did they are the team have to make in order to enable them to do what they do best? What is their main contribution to the team?

Step 4: Jamie encounters a significant challenge and overcomes it

It happens to everyone, and it will happen to Jamie too. Just when it seemed like everything is predictable and comfortable, Jamie encounters a massive challenge, which they have to overcome in order to become that Jamie step 3. What is the challenge? And how did they overcome it? Were you able to learn from the experience? Did Jamie need help to overcome their challenge? Were they able to get help? Who, other than Jamie, paid the price for their struggle, and in what way?

Step 5: Jamie is onboarded, integrated, a productive member of the team

Jamie is new, but not a newbie. They know well what to do, they have established relationships with everyone they need to work with. They are independently productive. What is it like? What place did they find in the team? Do they need a lot of guidance and direction? Have they planted themselves securely in the centre of the team? Or maybe they are more of a lone wolf? Is there anything you’d like to change about how they work or how they work with them? Are there any ways in which things aren’t quite working? If yes, when did you first realize that? Would it have been possible to see that earlier?

Step 6: Jamie is onboarding

Jamie joined the team. They are learning about the work, the people, the rituals, and the processes. How is it going? Are they learning independently, or rely a lot on guidance from others? Are they attentive and compliant, or questioning and innovative, changing the environment as they learn about it? How do others in the team react to them?

Step 7: An offer is made for Jamie to join the team and Jamie accepts it

Congrats! What convinced you to take the bet on Jamie and extend the offer? What did it take to convince Jamie to accept? Are they happy with the offer, or is it more of a compromise they can sort of live with? Why have they decided to join? Is this an opportunity they are wildly excited about? Or maybe a steppingstone towards something better at a later stage?

8

2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:36 AM
New Comment

I've read this post three times through and I still find it confusing. Perhaps it would be most helpful to say the parts I do understand and agree with, then proceed from there. I agree that the information available to hirers about candidates is relatively small, and that the future in general is complicated and chaotic.

I suppose the root of my confusion is this: won't a long-term extrapolation of a candidate's performance just magnify any inaccuracies that the hirer has mistakenly inferred from what they already know about the candidate? Isn't the most accurate information about the candidate here in the present rather than a low-confidence guess about the future? 

It's also unclear what all the questions in each step are meant to be assisting with. Are you really saying that, based on a candidate's application and short interview(s), you can make meaningful predictions about questions like "Who, other than Jamie, paid the price for their struggle, and in what way?" or "Where are they moving to? Do they keep in touch?". From my point of view, trying to generate weighted probabilities for every possible outcome just seems a lot less practical than merely comparing an applicant's resume and interview directly against another applicant's.

Thanks a lot for the helpful feedback!

I completely agree that the risk is trying to invent magical information about the future by inferring from what we know in the present. The reason I find this format helpful (and hoped the reader will too) is that to me it highlights the absurdity of trying to make a prediction based on the limited, currently available information, and as a result I'm more likely to take a rational approach - starting with the base rate (rather than biasing on current information that is unlikely to be all that relevant for the future), making very small corrections based on the information I have (instead of the very bold predictions the people often make) and make uncertainty explicit in the process.

I can see that it's possible to go through this process making the same mistakes you'd do if you started from the beginning, but I find it harder. If you haven't yet, give it a try (by using this end-to-beginning process) when you have a low-certainty / high-stakes decision to make, maybe you'll find that it works for you too.