Throw away the job description

Radhika Sivadi

3 min read ·


The traditional way to hire is to decide what Mr. or Ms. Right is like and then go find the closest match. There's a better way.

If you want to innovate, you have to be willing to make mistakes. I take that as a given. In my new book Brilliant Mistakes, I chronicled scores of missteps and supposedly doomed experiments by the likes of the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling—all of which led to great breakthroughs.

But “brilliant mistakes” aren’t limited to iPods, science, and flying machines. They can also be useful in the curious mating ritual known as hiring new staff. The basic challenge in hiring, as in dating, is to find a suitable match efficiently in an ocean of possibilities. It’s all about knowing what you want – right?

Well, only up to a point.

Whether they care to admit it or not, hiring managers, like most people, suffer from tunnel vision, unconscious prejudices, and a far narrower range of experience than they realize. Thinking they know what they want, they shut themselves off to innovative possibilities. For that reason, a smart approach to hiring would be to sample widely, beyond your usual selection criteria.

Maria Dahvana Headley, a 20-year-old NYU drama student, took this notion to the extreme in the dating game. After too many fruitless forays into New York’s night scene, she decided to try a bold and outrageous experiment. She resolved to say “yes” to any man who asked her out on a date (except convicted felons). Her memoir, The Year of Yes, describes how this policy led to dates with her building’s maintenance head, a homeless man, a Microsoft millionaire who still lived with his mother, and a career woman. She finally accepted a date with a playwright, divorced, many years her senior with kids, whom she fell in love with and married. She never would have given him a second glance before this experiment.

This is a great example of a brilliant mistake. Surely dating at random sounds like an idea doomed to failure, but setting a narrow filter is perhaps even more so. Her approach is the opposite of searching with strong preset criteria: in evolutionary terms, she pursued a strategy equivalent to random mutation.

By permitting many mistakes in dating, Headley created more variance and was able to learn faster about what she truly wanted in a partner. What Headley realized is that our typical way of experimenting—developing a preconceived idea of Mr. or Ms. Right and finding someone to fit the part—does not always lead to the best decisions. Making more mistakes, as Headley did in her “year of yes,” can really speed the process of learning.

Although few companies would embrace hiring anyone who applied, many have benefited from expanding their approach beyond the ordinary. The former CEO of Philips in Holland would take senior prospects on challenging hunting trips to see how they managed adversity. Nordstrom hires sales people from a wide spectrum and then quickly separates the wheat from the chaff. Mark Fidelo, the creative director of Young & Rubicam, took a risk hiring Festus Mbuimwe from Kenya who responded to a job opening he was clearly was under qualified for. But Fidelo liked the draft advertisement Mbuimwe submitted and hired him for a five-month internship. Mbuimwe, now an editor at a Nairobi-based website, brought a perspective that Y&R could never have obtained from the standard candidate.

So, how might you do likewise?

Go ahead and set some selection criteria, but don’t let them become a straightjacket Occasionally interview someone who doesn’t fit your criteria and perhaps hire one or two Experiment intelligently: limit the downside risk while giving the upside a chance

Do you have the nerve to try searching beyond your narrow filters? It takes smart mistakes to survive in the business jungle, especially if your strategy is all about innovation. My contrarian advice is to induce variance in your hiring process rather than reduce it. Do that, and evolution will be on your side. Good luck.

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Radhika Sivadi