Posted On: Friday, 05 December 2008 by Rajiv Popat

When I was asked to join a team of recruiters in their recruitment drive in one of the top-notch colleges I discovered how utterly screwed up their recruitment process for hiring college interns was. Almost a hundred students showed up for the recruitment drive. By the time the selection ended that evening this team of recruiters had recruited for their company, what they referred to as the ten best-of-the-best students.

If you ask me the recruitment team had done just as good as they would have done had they written the names of the students on really small post-it notes, stuck the post-it notes on a dart board, blind-folded one of the recruiters and asked him to throw ten darts, hiring students whose name the dart hit.

Saying that they would have done just as well as hitting a dart-board with eyes blind folded isn’t such an exaggeration as it might seem. When you’re hiring from a decently good college that admits students who had studied computers for the last five years, the laws of probability kicks in and you tend to pick ‘some’ excellent candidates. If you randomly picked ten guys my guess is that you would end up with a pie that looked somewhat like this:


This interview drive was quite a long day consisting of questions on the line of:

  1. If you had three balls and were not given a measuring scale to weigh them how would you find the heaviest ball of the three balls?
  2. If you had a cake and an irregular piece had fallen off from the side how would you divide the cake into exactly two equal halves?
  3. How would you find the number of cigarette shops in town?

The parade of funny-questions continued all day and then in the evening when I was told that we had picked ten best-of-the-best-guys out of that drive I looked blankly at the person telling me we were done and after a lot of thinking I said something on the lines of - “Ok. Let’s go home.” 

During the recruitment drive I had approached one of the recruiters and asked him to let me talk to all hundred guys in a room and see which ones of them participate in a group discussion and have opinions of their own. I was told I couldn’t because it wasn’t on the agenda and I had to mention what it is that I was going to speak on. The ‘agenda’ had consisted of one written exam after another on topics like IQ, English and a couple of other exams.

I considered the recruitment drive nothing more than a practical joke both on the organization and on the candidates. When it ended, I was glad it was over; but then the same drive brought up some really important questions about how I recruited my team members, the kind of recruitment I had just witnessed and how distinctly different both approaches were.

Most organizations around the planet seem to give way too much importance to IQ and theory while recruiting but the fact remains that Software Development is a rather practical craft. A huge part of it is done in small and tightly knit teams where not everyone happens to be the smartest of the lot but everyone contributes in the orchestration adds their very own Niche to the mix of successful implementation. Contributions range from developing or testing and goes all the way to being a catalyst.

Using IQ as the only measuring scale of how good a contributor you will turn out to be sounds like a rather impractical thing to do. After all, as sizzling as the idea sounds, IQ does not guarantee applied intelligence, results or success in the real world.

Michael Brotherton makes some rather interesting point in his rather opinionated post, where he describes ‘Why Mensa Is Stupid’:

Here's the latest piece of evidence, a 47 year-old Mensa member who is auctioning off his hand in marriage on eBay. I can't tell if he thinks he's a steal at the $100k "Buy It Now" price, or he just doesn't value his life that much. He's offensive, too, and in my opinion a lazy bastard who should get off his butt and make a better contribution.

I qualify for Mensa (my PSAT score twenty years ago was plenty, and every similar test since). I don't belong to Mensa. I like doing some of the puzzles and games they do, but if that's what being part of Mensa is all about they could drop the qualifications. What's the point to having a "smart club" and keeping others out except to feel elitist? I don't have a problem with people feeling elitist, per se, although I think they're shallow and people so dang smart should go out and do something more productive with their lives!

I've got a PhD, use the Hubble Space Telescope among other facilities, and write novels on the side. I usually don't have time to sit around doing puzzles with people I've chosen to be with based on their SAT scores. I like people of many sorts, and don't pick my friends based on test scores.

Marilyn Vos Savant, "smartest person in the world" and Mensa poster-girl, writes an insipid column. Is that the best the "smartest person in the world" can do? I like to think our best and brightest on this world would contribute something a little more valuable than she has. I mean, she's supposed to be the "smartest," after all. I may not score as high as she does on an IQ test, but I know underachievement when I smell it.

There are a lot of different intelligences, and a lot of different skills. Some great chess players are kind of stupid when they don't play chess (Bobby Fischer comes to mind). Some hunters I know have "wood smarts" that leave me in awe. And there are brilliant artists whose Verbal and Quantitative SAT scores would impress no one, but whose spatial sense would let them toast most Mensa members on many a puzzle. 

Michael is rather correct when he comments on different intelligences. The idea of appreciating diverse set of good qualities and not just labeling someone as good or bad dawned unto me when I saw a struggling developer being heavily criticized by his manager as a ‘mediocre performer at everything he does’; moved to testing and become one of the best testers I happened to work with. The notion that IQ defines intelligence and someone who has a high IQ should be good at everything is just stupidly absurd.

Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, The Outliers breaks the myth of mapping IQ to success:

In 1921, Terman decided to make the study the gifted his life work. Armed with a large grant from the Commonwealth Foundation, he put together a team of fieldworkers and sent them out into California’s elementary schools. Teachers were asked to nominate the brightest students in their class. Those children were given an intelligence test. The students who scored in the top 10 percent were given a second IQ test, and those who scored above 130 on that test were given a third IQ test, and from that set of results Terman selected the best and the brightest. By the time Terman had finished, he had sorted 250,000 elementary ad high school students and identified 1470 children whose IQs averaged over 140 and ranged as high as 200. That group of younger geniuses came to be known as the “Termites” and they were the subjects of what would become one of the most psychological studies in history.  

Malcolm then goes on to describe where the Terman experiment of the gifted with high IQs went wrong: 

He (Terman) fell in love with the fact that his Termites were at the absolute pinnacle of the intellectual scale – at the ninety-ninth percentile of the ninety-ninth percentile – without realizing how little that seemingly extraordinary fact meant.

By the time the Termites reached adulthood, Terman’s error was plane to see. Some of his child geniuses had grown up to publish books and scholarly articles and thrive in business. Several ran for public office, and there were two superior court justices, one municipal court judge, two members of California state legislature, and one prominent state official. But few of his geniuses were nationally known figures. They tended to earn good incomes – but were not that good. The majority had careers that could only be considered ordinary, and a surprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures.      

Malcolm refers to this excessive dependence on IQ or intelligence and mapping it directly to success as the ‘Terman Error’ and offers practical advice on how to judge individuals when you cannot be just relying in IQ as a measuring scale for an individual. He offers the ‘divergence test’ where candidates are asked to write down as many different uses of objects like ‘a brick’ or ‘a blanket’ as a better alternative. The divergence test requires not just the use of intelligence but imagination in as many ways and in as many directions as possible. He then analyzes results from one of the divergence test and uses it for his assessment of an individual named Poole:

It’s not hard to read Poole’s answers and get some sense of how his mind works. He’s funny. He’s a little subversive and libidinous. He has the flair for the dramatic. His mind leaps from imagery to sex to people jumping out of burning skyscrapers to very practical issues, such as how to get a duvet to stay on a bed. He gives us an impression that if we gave him another ten minutes he’d come up with another twenty uses.      

Malcolm then compares the results with another individual with a much higher IQ level and questions our fundamentals of selections based on IQ and Intelligence:

Florence’s IQ is higher than Poole’s. But that means little, since both students are above the threshold. What is more interesting is that Poole’s mind can leap from violent imagery to sex to people jumping out of buildings without missing a beat, and Florence’s mind can’t. Now which one of these two students do you think is better suited to do the kind of brilliant, imaginative work that wins Nobel Prizes?      

Malcolm seems to highlight the fact that a high IQ does not seem to equate to more success. If you are the kind of the guy who had a traditional outlook to intelligence and success you should get yourself a copy of Outliers. A very interesting read which challenges conventional wisdom with research and data rather ruthlessly.

So much for IQ; and while we’re at it let’s also challenge the to-recruit-the-best-hire-from-best-of-the-colleges thought process shall we?

Janet Rae-Dupree challenges the conventional wisdom that hiring the best of the students from best of the colleges always works out well in her The New York Times, Unboxed article:

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ‘naturals’ with innate ability,” says Ms. Dweck, who is known for research that crosses the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology.

“People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

In this case, nurture wins out over nature just about every time.

While some managers apply these principles every day, too many others instead believe that hiring the best and the brightest from top-flight schools guarantees corporate success.

The problem is that, having been identified as geniuses, the anointed become fearful of falling from grace. “It’s hard to move forward creatively and especially to foster teamwork if each person is trying to look like the biggest star in the constellation,” Ms. Dweck says. 

A couple of years after the college drive I was genuinely curious about what happened of the the bunch of these elite students who had been recruited after they had been labeled ‘the best of the best’ so I thought I’d call up the managers in the organization they were working in and find out. The results were interesting:

  1. Two of them had turned out to be good and productive.
  2. Three were pretty average and were decently productive.
  3. Three were mediocre and were struggling to keep alive.
  4. One of them was fired because of gross misbehavior and use of random abusive language in office.
  5. One of them wasn’t confirmed because of bad performance and decided to quit.

By the way, any guesses on how many other employees who had been picked without any IQ test had been fired by that hundred person organization that very year? Just one.

Net-Net, the recruitment results would have been similar had the recruitment team downloaded names with three years of experience from a job portal and started throwing darts at the names with a blind-fold.

So much for using IQ and Educational background as a measuring scale for success and the people you want on your team. If intelligence and IQ are your only measures of success, you might be leading your team into the classical ‘Terman Error’ and throwing random darts completely blindfolded while pretending that you are picking the ‘best-of-the-best’.

Remember, there are multiple kinds of intelligence and no single test, not even the divergence test, can measure for sure, who will work out for your team and who won’t. You have to get your best, and trust them to do it for you and then if they make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and get better the next time. As much as organizations crave for one simple answer in the art of recruitment, fact remains that there is none.

If you’ve been reading this far, dear reader, all I’ve done is attempted to sell the idea that neither college nor IQ scores can guarantee that you hiring the best. If you’re ready to buy the idea, it would mean that you now need to get your best guys and ask them define the best that joins your organization.

If you don’t buy the idea and feel that reaching out for the best of the colleges and hiring the guys with the highest IQ can solve all your problems associated with quality of recruitment, I offer you a big round dart board, lots of post-it notes, a sketch pen to write names with, a few darts and wish you good luck at hiring.

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