Fact-based, but personal opinion/perspective

Ecosystems Thinking for Social Change

Ecosystem, or “system” thinking is not necessarily about ecology, but uses an ecological metaphor to explore the interconnectedness of various aspects of any system (Mars, Bronstein, & Lusch, 2014).  This is a critical skill for business organizations to aid strategy and innovation.  It is also an area where versatilists often shine, because versatilists are uniquely adept at taking deep knowledge from one system and applying it to their understanding of new systems, often leading to unique insights.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  This is about how a lack of systems thinking is trapping our society into repeating the same issues repeatedly.  This is about how electing people who comprehend systems thinking might be a better means of bringing about social change.

The Heart of Systems Thinking

At the heart of systems thinking is to keep in mind that no problem, no solution, no individual exists in a vacuum.  The whole world is a set of interrelated systems that influence and affect those around it; changes in one system ripple throughout our entire society.  Systems thinking involves attempting to understand and evaluate any problem or solution within the context of the bigger picture.

For instance, take constraint theory (Tulasi & Rao, 2012).  Constraint theory suggests that any system or process is constrained by the least capable or least efficient step in the system; this is often equated with the “weakest link” idea that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.  The idea behind constraint theory, however, suggests that if you fortify the weakest link (solving that problem), you have simultaneously created a new “weakest link” (formerly, the next-to-weakest link).  In addition, the newer, stronger link may also have other unintended consequences (maybe by making it stronger, you have also made it bigger, which affects some other function).  In essence, the process to creating a stronger chain is a never-ending task as each solution has ramifications.

In systems thinking, you must evaluate how a solution to one problem may create a new problem or change the dynamics of another system.  This potential new problem must also be evaluated to determine if it is a bigger problem than the one you are attempting to solve, or makes the solution you have proposed untenable.  Problem solving, like creating a stronger chain, is a never-ending process.  However, the intended result is improving the overall whole, ensuring one solution doesn’t create a bigger problem somewhere else.

Unfortunately, without systems thinking, we are failing to create an overall better society, but are remaining mostly stationary.  Solutions examined and evaluated within a vacuum, create ripples that, instead of moving us forward, keep us in a constant state.

Examples of Non-Systems Thinking Challenges

The worst part of failing to apply systems thinking to the problems of our society, is when the same groups of people argue for two independent solutions, which are counterproductive; i.e., when the same group argues for one solution that aggravates another problem they are trying to solve and vice-versa.  It is important to understand that, in and of themselves, the proposed solutions may be perfectly good solutions; it is only when you combine the system effects that issue become apparent.  It is also important to note that this is not an analysis of the merits of any particular solution or point of view.  There is no intent to endorse or oppose any of the individual solutions, simply to illustrate the systems effects of those solutions.

Immigration Reform and Free Trade Agreements

By itself, building a border wall, while economically questionable, is a perfectly legitimate solution to preventing illegal immigration via our southern US borer.  It is not the only solution of course, but it is a possible solution.  We can debate this one way or the other, but even opponents must admit that it is a solution whether they agree it is the right one or not.

Similarly, eliminating or significantly reducing free trade, particularly with low-cost labor countries like Mexico is a legitimate solution to reducing job-loss in the US via off-shore outsourcing by US companies and keeping US investment in the US.  Again, not the only solution, but certainly one way to address the issue.  We can once again debate this, but it must be accepted that it is a solution.

However, when put together, these solutions are counter-productive.  By eliminating the ability for Mexico to continue to develop and build their economic capability (by granting them easy access to US markets and US investment), their standard of living will likely decline.  A decline in standard of living (loss of jobs and the income from it) only perpetuates the growth of illicit enterprises (e.g. drugs) as well as makes illegally emigrating to the US more attractive.  As such, from a systems perspective, reversing free trade agreements will likely compound the issue of illegal immigration, as well as drug smuggling and other issues.  This places even bigger demands on the needs of border protection and immigration control.  These are misaligned solutions from a systems perspective.

Welfare Reform and Birth Control

Another counterproductive combination of arguments is simultaneously arguing for reducing the US welfare system, while simultaneously arguing to eliminate birth control options, including sex education and access to safe abortions.  Again, in and of their own, each of these arguments are perfectly reasonable and can be understood.   Without applying personal judgements on them, they are reasonable goals and can be respected.  From a systems perspective however, these are not isolated issues or goals, they have complex interactions which makes arguing for both less reasonable.   The only logical result of limiting sex education and access to birth control measures is an increase in women and children within the welfare system.  It is illogical to argue for both actions, even if either one of them in isolation can at least be recognized as reasonable.

Cyber Security and Encryption Strength

Just this last week, there were two articles published.  The first one detailed how Russian hackers have been targeting the personal (non-government) cell phones of NATO soldiers to track, intimidate, and spy on them.  The second one detailed the Department of Justice (DoJ) pushing for US technology firms to make it easier for law enforcement to access the encrypted (personal) devices of accused criminals.  Again, arguing for improved safety and security of our personal information, particularly through strong encryption is a reasonable solution to rampant cyber crime.  It is also reasonable to argue that law enforcement should be able to access the information they need to convict criminals for breaking the law.  Unfortunately, you cannot reasonably argue for both as the one comes at the cost of the other.  Arguing that we need to better protect our personal information from thieves, while simultaneously arguing to hobble encryption for government access are mutually exclusive goals.

Understanding the Bigger Picture is Essential

Systems thinking requires us to look at the proposed solutions and understand their ultimate effects.  It asks us to better understand how seemingly separate systems interact and how changes in one creates ripple effects in others.  Besides allowing us to mediate between counter-productive arguments, systems thinking also provides an opportunity to discover new solutions.

By broadening our thinking, systems thinking allows us to uncover new solutions to old problems.  If we see how changes in one system can ripple into others, we can harness these ripples for positive change in our society.  It asks us to look at why things happen, at root causes, rather than addressing the ramifications or symptoms of those problems.  It allows us to explore how numerous problems in our society may be linked by ripple effects of similar issues we haven’t imagined.  For instance, could the rising costs of US health care (and its effects on treatment of mental health issues) be a progenitor of the rising threats of violence and recruitment of disaffected youth by terrorist organizations?   Could the antiquated US tax system be a progenitor of immigration challenges, job-loss through outsourcing, and increased income divisions?  Could US foreign policy be a bigger source of terrorist threats than religious extremism?  Systems thinking helps us see how solving one challenge may also have positive benefits on others.

Unfortunately, we do not look at problems as components in a unified system of systems, we tend to look at individual problems and argue solutions without thinking about the ramifications of those arguments.  We frequently miss the forest for the trees.  The effect is to leave us in a perpetual state of uncertainty, never moving society fully forward no matter how many problems we try to solve.  We never address the true source of the problem, only applying patches that don’t align and don’t solve the underlying problem.  We would all do better if we took a more holistic view of the problems we face, rather than reactively addressing symptoms.



Mars, M., Bronstein, J., & Lusch, R. (2014). Organizations as ecosystems: Probing the value of a metaphor. Rotman Management, 73–77.

Tulasi, C. L., & Rao, A. R. (2012). Review on theory of constraints. International Journal of Advances in Engineering & Technology, 3(1), 334–344.


Improving Multiple-Choice Assessments by Limiting Time

Standardized, multiple-choice assessments frequently come under fire because they test rote skills, rather than practical, real-world application.  Although this is a gross over-generalization failing to account for the cognitive-complexity the items (questions) are written to, standardized assessments are designed to evaluate what a person knows, not how well they can apply it.  If that were the end of the discussion, you could be forgiven in assuming standardized testing is poor at predicting real-world performance or differentiating between novices and more seasoned, experienced practitioners.  However, there is another component that, when added to standardized testing, can raise assessments to a higher level: time.  Time, or more precisely, control over the amount of time allowed to perform the exam, can be highly effective in differentiating between competence and non-competence.

The Science Bit

Research in the field of expertise and expert performance suggests experts not only have the capacity to know more, they also know in a way differently than non-experts; experts exhibit different mental models than novices (Feltovich, Prietula, & Ericsson, 2006).  Mental models represent how individuals organize and implement knowledge, instead of explicitly determining what that knowledge encompasses.  Novice practitioners start with mental models representing the most basic elements of the knowledge required within a domain, and their mental models gradually gain complexity and refinement as the novice gains practical experience applying those models in real world performance (Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982; Gogus, 2013; Insch, McIntyre, & Dawley, 2008; Schack, 2004).

While Chase and Simon (1973) first theorized that the way experts chunk and sequence information mediated their superior performance, Feltovich et al. (2006) suggested these changes facilitated experts processing more information faster and with less cognitive effort contributing to greater performance. Feltovich et al. (2006) noted this effect as one of the best-established characteristics of expertise and demonstrated in numerous knowledge domains including chess, bridge, electronics, physics problem solving, and medical applications.

For example, Chi et al. (1982) determined that the way novices and experts approach problem-solving in advanced physics was significantly different despite all subjects having the same actual knowledge necessary for the problem solution; novices focused on surface details while experts approached problems from a deeper, theoretical perspective.  Chi et al. also demonstrated the novice’s lack of experience and practical application contributed to errors in problem analysis requiring more time and effort to overcome. While the base knowledge of experts and novices may not differ significantly, experts appear to approach problem solving from a differentiated perspective allowing them more success in applying correct solutions the first time and recovering faster when initial solutions fail.

In that vein of thought, Gogus (2013) demonstrated that expert models were highly interconnected and complex in nature, representing how experience allowed experts the application of greater amounts of knowledge in problem solving.  The ability for applying existing knowledge with greater efficiency augments the difference in problem-solving strategy demonstrated by Chi et al. (1982).  Whereas novices apply problem-solving approaches linearly one at a time, experts evaluate multiple approaches simultaneously in determining the most appropriate course of action.

Achieving expertise is, therefore, not simply a matter of accumulating knowledge and skills, but a complex transformation of the way experts implement that knowledge and skill (Feltovich et al., 2006). This distinction provides clues into better implementing assessments to differentiate between expert and novice: the time it takes to complete an assessment.

Cool Real-World Example Using Football (Sorry. Soccer)

In an interesting twist on typical mental model assessment studies, Lex, Essig, Knoblauch, and Schack (2015) asked novice and experienced soccer players to quickly and accurately decide the best choice of tactics (either “a” or “b”) given a video image of a simulated game situation.  Lex et al. used eye-tracking systems to measure how the participants reviewed the image, as well as measuring their accuracy and response time.  As one would expect, the more experienced players were both more accurate in their responses, as well as quicker. Somewhat surprising was the reason experienced players performed faster.

While Lex et al. (2015) determined both sets of players fixated on individual pixels in the image for nearly the same amount of time, experienced players had less fixations and observed less pixels overall.   Less experienced players needed to review more of the image before deciding, and were still more likely to make incorrect decisions.  On the other hand, more experienced players, although not perfect, made more accurate decisions based on less information.  The difference in performance was not attributable to differences in basic understanding of tactics or playing soccer, but the ability of experienced players to make better decisions with less information and taking less time.

The Takeaway

Multiple-choice, standardized assessments are principally designed to differentiate what people know, with limited ability to differentiate how well they can apply that knowledge in the real world.  Yet, it is also well-established that competent performers have numerous advantages leading to better performance in less time.    If time constraints are actively and responsibly constructed as an integral component of these assessments, they may well achieve better predictive performance; they could do a much better job of evaluating not just what someone knows, but how well they can apply it.



Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). The mind’s eye in chess. In Visual Information Processing (pp. 215–281). New York, NY: Academic Press, Inc.

Chi, M. T. H., Glaser, R., & Rees, E. (1982). Expertise in problem solving. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the psychology of human intelligence (Vol. 1, pp. 7–75). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Feltovich, P. J., Prietula, M. J., & Ericsson, K. A. (2006). Studies of expertise from psychological perspectives. In The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert …. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gogus, A. (2013). Evaluating mental models in mathematics: A comparison of methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61(2), 171–195.

Insch, G. S., McIntyre, N., & Dawley, D. (2008). Tacit Knowledge: A Refinement and Empirical Test of the Academic Tacit Knowledge Scale. The Journal of Psychology, 142(6), 561–579.

Lex, H., Essig, K., Knoblauch, A., & Schack, T. (2015). Cognitive Representations and Cognitive Processing of Team-Specific Tactics in Soccer. PLoS ONE, 10(2), 1–19.

Schack, T. (2004). Knowledge and performance in action. Journal of Knowledge Management, 8(4), 38–53.

Fear Not the AI Overlords! Humans Have Intrinsic Value.

There is significant hype about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to take over many jobs thought safe from Automation.  It has been suggested AI could replace accountants, lawyers, doctors, and even general management activities.  While it is true that advances in AI will certainly change many jobs, as so often happens, the fear is exaggerated.  First, there is no evidence to support the notion automation has ever eliminated more jobs than it has created.  Second, and more importantly, humans have intrinsic value that is unlikely to ever be replicated or replaced.

The Fear of Losing Jobs

Before anyone gets too excited, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the facts of mass automation in the past.  Technology from the cotton gin through AI has always eliminated some jobs, but historically it has also created far more and better paying jobs as a result.  Sure surrey drivers were put out of work with the advent of the automobile, but the auto industry created millions of jobs supporting the US GDP for decades.  AI is simply the latest in a long-line of technological advances feared to lead to the end of our society.  It has never happened before and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  It is true that some jobs may cease to exist, but this will be accompanied by a growth of new jobs supporting the AI industry.  Even more remarkable will be the new jobs that don’t even exist today.

A recent report from the Institute for the Future estimates 85% of the jobs today’s students will perform by the year 2030 haven’t yet been invented.  This is a difficult prospect for today’s workers to imagine, but it is not without precedent.  Student’s graduating high school in the 1990’s could not have imagined careers working in web design, social media, or – for that matter — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data.  Another recent article from MIT Sloan Management Review hints at some of the new jobs AI technology may create.

On top of all of that, it is unlikely many of the jobs being predicted to succumb to AI will actually go away.  It is much more likely they will be augmented and changed than disappear entirely.  And the reason is simple: humans have innate value in performing jobs in a human society.

Humans Have Intrinsic Value

Although AI is redefining what is considered automata by allowing more variation in performance, it is still not human.  Human beings are defined by the irrational and emotional more than they are by cold, calculated precision.  While this may seem to be a negative aspect of humans, it is also the source of the innovation, creativity, and passion that simply cannot be replicated.  Just for sake of argument, let’s examine just one of the jobs proposed to be replaced in the future by AI: management.

Business management is an oft misunderstood discipline, which does not benefit from the HR moniker “people manager”.  You manage objects, but you lead people.  Objects are managed to gain efficiency, but they have finite limitations. You cannot encourage a robot to be more productive.  You cannot ignite passion in your inventory tracking software to go above and beyond.  Yet human beings have nearly limitless capability to “reach for a goal”, “put in extra effort”, or “embrace shared visions”.  While this can also work to reduce human performance (as discussed in this article from MIT Sloan Management Review), this is critical distinction when looking at the effects of AI in particular.

Management, in its truest sense, is absolutely ripe for AI replacement.  Eliminating the idiosyncracies of human performance can have significant value to organizations.  AI is simply better able to gather, process, and act on vast amounts of data where human input is less vital (although not necessarily irrelevant).  By offloading these tedious and taxing responsibilities, while also improving their performance, humans can spend more time doing the things where they have intrinsic, and irreplaceable value (See article from Swiss Cognitive).

Leadership, on the other hand, will no longer need to take backseat to management.  By focusing on leadership, organizations will not only gain the advantages of AI-based management efficiency, but also from the benefits of stronger human performance.  In essence, organizational leaders will be able to offload the tasks they don’t do very well anyway, and focus on the actions that lead to truly superior performance.

Fear Not!!

While the example above focuses on my area of expertise, the same can be said for many other jobs ripe for AI augmentation.  AI, like the cotton gin and automobile before it, are tools that will augment and improve the way we work.  Yes, some jobs may be significantly reduced or eliminated; however, they will be replaced by newer and better jobs.  The jobs getting augmented by AI will simply change, putting more focus on the human aspect.  It is not the end of the world.



The Effects of Positive Psychology on Organizational Success

Intent is a powerful mediator of outcomes.  An organization’s mission, vision, and values set the direction of future success simply by codifying the organization’s intent.  This intent flows through every aspect of the organization, affecting the choices people make, and the outcomes of those actions.  (Read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why“).

For instance, suppose you start a company to develop a better mousetrap.  You might start this company simply because we all know that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door and generate huge profits.  On the other hand, you might start your company because you have a passion for eradicating the scourge of mice and their negative effects on human society.   These are both valid rationales for starting a new company and developing a better mousetrap.  If you succeed in building a better mousetrap, both intents are likely to be successful, at least initially.  Intent, however, will begin to show over time.  The company whose intent is purely profit driven will make choices supporting that mission, while the company whose intent is based on a passion for improving the world through mouse eradication will make different choices supporting that mission.  These choices affect the long-term viability of the business.

Not only will these differences in intent affect things like pricing, marketing, customer experience, and other traditional business decisions, they will also affect the people in the organization.  A positive intent keeps employees engaged and helps them grow as people and employees.  These are the effects of positive psychology and should not be discounted when an organiation considers why they do what they do.

Understanding Positive Psychology

Positive psychology, in short, is simply a focus to understand and investigate the positive capabilities and achievements of the individual, community/organization and society as a whole (Fredrickson, 2001; Quinn, Dutton, & Cameron, 2003; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Sheldon & King, 2001).  Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), suggest that, prior to WW II, psychology was normally associated with three purposes: treating mental illness, encouraging the development and growth of all people, and the identification and development of exceptional capabilities. Since WW II, however, the focus of psychology has been solely on mental illness, deficit and pathology.  The other, more positive implications of psychology withered. While positive psychology is not intended to supplant existing research and theories on mental illness (Sheldon & King, 2001), it suggests that the typical deficit models practiced for over half a decade fail to adequately describe the realities of the population as a whole, as well as be a reminder of the original tenets of psychology foundation to include the good, the exceptional and the positive.

This positive approach has spawned any number of new approaches to the understanding of human development and organizational development focused on examining the positive instead of the negative.  For instance, towards the understanding of human development, theories have evolved to demonstrate that positive emotions or moments not only broaden an individuals perceptions of the world, but also build capabilities and personal resources which help them mitigate the effects of negative experiences (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).  Additional research suggests this broadening capability is not solely constrained to mental perceptions, but to physiological perceptions as well like visual attention and field of view (Fredrickson, 2013). The resources accumulated from positive moments may not be abstract resources related to resilience and adaptability, but more discrete resources like attention to detail and capacity to learn.

Towards understanding organizational development, positive psychological approaches have generated new ways at looking at the process of creating exceptional organizations, not by fixing what is wrong, but by amplifying what is right.  Appreciative Inquiry is a model for change practices making the assumption that all organizations have an essentially positive capability to succeed.  By examining the past moments of peak performance, achievement and success, the organization can create a vision of the future based on those positive aspects (Quinn et al., 2003).

The common element in all of these ideas is that there is benefit in focusing on what is good instead of what is bad.  Focusing on the positive aspects creates a upward spiral of reinforcement (Quinn et al., 2003) and is a self-perpetuating process under normal circumstances (Fredrickson, 2013).  The corollary is that a focus on the bad would promote a downward, self-perpetuating cycle.  Thus, attempting to make change by focusing on the negative aspects of  what not to do, while one appropriate response to challenges, creates a self-defeating process promoting blame, low self-worth and incompetence.  Positive psychology suggests that focusing on what to do, on what was successful, is a better alternative as it creates a self-fulfilling cycle promoting excellence, success and achievement.

Brining it back to Intent

One could argue that a profit intent is not inherently bad; without making money, companies cannot sustain themselves.  Yet, without a positive focus beyond profit, without an intent that can inspire and create positive feelings, the organization is likely to diminish in productivity, innovation, and, ultimately, profit.  The concepts of positive psychology push us to appreciate a focus on the existence of the extraordinary and exceptional instead of simply on what is broken and dysfunctional (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).  It is an attempt to look at the positive potential of the future instead of simply examining the future as an attempt to overcome deficit.  It tells us that our intent has significant influence on our long-term outcomes.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. The American psychologist, 68(9), 814–22. doi:10.1037/a0033584

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. The American psychologist, 60(7), 678–86. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Quinn, R. E., Dutton, J. E., & Cameron, K. S. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship : Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.5

Sheldon, K. M., & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. The American psychologist, 56(3), 216–7. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.216

The Versatilist Vs. the Peter Principle

It is surprising how few are familiar with the Peter Principle.  This is most disturbing in the areas of business and organizational psychology as it speaks directly to the source of innumerable challenges for organizational success.  It should be a risk factor in talent management, succession planning, and organizational compensation systems.  Most of all, organizations should look at ways to circumvent this process; most notably, organizations should consider how Verstalists can thwart the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle

“In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His [Her] Level of Incompetence” (Peter & Hull, 1969, p. 25).

In action, the Peter Principle states a simple inevitability.  If you are good at your job, you get promoted.  If you are good at the new job, you get promoted again.  This continues until you take on a job for which you are not well suited; i.e. incompetent.  Having reached your level of incompetence, you no longer get promoted, but stay within the job you are least capable of performing well.   Taken to its ultimate conclusion, organizations eventually become dominated by leaders with the least capability to do their job.

Although published originally in 1969 as a tongue-in-cheek exposition on incompetence within human organizations, and supported by fictitious research, the Peter Principle continues to be debated amongst practitioners and academics.  It has been lambasted as unscientific (something it never purported to be) and crass overgeneralization, as well as an insightful source of legitimate inquiry.  The staying power of the Peter Principle maybe that its simplicity and succinctness, aligns with human experience and explains why so many organizations manage to do such stupid things.

The Value of the Peter Principle Perspective

Despite the limited academic basis for the Peter Principle, it manages to highlight a particular problem – why do we use promotion as a means of reward for competent performance (Fairburn & Malcomson, 2001)?  Doing so fails to consider two very fundamental truths: competence is domain specific, and management is a very specific skill. These fundamental truths conflict with the way most organizations reward and promote people.  Failure to acknowledge these promotes inefficiency, turmoil, and perpetuates the validity of the Peter Principle.

First, few organizations design their job families to reward and promote people for simply getting better and more efficient at the job they do.  Moving from job-specialist level 1, to job-specialist level 2, often requires doing different things, instead of doing the same things better.  We reward people, not for being good at their job, but for taking on new roles they have never done before, not proven they are capable of, and promoting constant change rather than long-term competence.   As soon as people demonstrate competence, we move them.

Second, organizations fail to realize management and leadership skills as a unique job all to themselves.  Being a good engineer says nothing about your ability to be a good engineering manager; however, good leadership skills can be a boon regardless of the function or industry. While understanding the jobs people need to perform is beneficial, leaders do not have to be competent in all the job functions they lead.  Promoting people who are competent in their job but shown no competence for leadership to positions of leadership, once again, promotes inefficiency and disruption.  Not only do you lose a competent performer in their prior role, but you may very well promote incompetent leadership.

Versatilists to the Rescue

Versatilists rarely run afoul of the Peter Principle.  First, versatilists are rarely promoted very high within most organizations, because they do not stay within any specific domain very long (something HR departments seem to think predicts success).  Second, because versatilists are deeply knowledgeable about many domains, they are keenly aware of what they are, and more importantly are not, capable of doing.  As such, versatilists without the desire or capability to lead will not pursue those opportunities.  Versatilists could be the savior for organizations looking to thwart the Peter Principle, but it will require HR to change their perspective on talent acquisition and development.

In terms of talent acquisition, HR and recruiting need to look beyond the experience requirements they believe are required for a job, and begin looking at the actual skills.  Far too often, organizations are looking for years of single domain experience (like engineering and software development) for roles that don’t necessarily require that experience (like leading engineering and software development teams).   The skills themselves are more important than the domain in which they were developed.   This is important for strategic innovation in particular, where having new perspectives brought to the job can be highly valuable.  A versatilists with leadership capability can quickly adapt to new industries and environments, while also bringing a host of new skills.

HR/Recruiting should also consider the quantity and quality of performance, rather than simply the length of performance, when looking at promotions or new hires.  Comparing two candidates for a position, a candidate who has shown success in multiple assignments and multiple environments over numerous years, should be preferred to one that has shown success in a single domain over the same time.  The candidate with multiple, differentiated success is much more likely to be successful in the new job as well; the one in a single domain is ripe to be reaching their level of incompetence.  Success in adapting to new environments is a skill companies should value, but don’t.

In terms of talent development, HR needs to create ways of rewarding specialists who do their job increasingly well over years of dedication without using promotions, while appreciating the versatilists who thrive in taking on new roles.  Promotions should not be the only means of rewarding top performers; bonuses and incentives should be used to drive continued competence building.  Promotions should only be used to expand and diversify the experiences of those already proving their ability to adapt and succeed in new roles.   HR needs to look beyond narrow definitions to find the people most likely to succeed, not those that have just been doing it longer.

As companies continue to struggle with market volatility, disruptive innovation, and dramatic shifts in business models, versatilism should be the new standard of performance.  What good is someone who has ten years’ experience in business models and practices that no longer hold true? Perhaps a new principle, the Versatilist Veracity should succeed the Peter Principle:

“Without Versatilists, a Hierarchy Tends to Become Incompetent”



Fairburn, J. a, & Malcomson, J. M. (2001). Performance, promotion, and the Peter Principle. Review of Economic Studies, 68(1), 45–66.

Peter, L. J., & Hull, R. (1969). The Peter Principle. Cutchogue, N.Y.: Willima Morrow & Co., Inc.

You’re a little bit racist, and so am I.

One of the more well-known, and potentially contentious, songs from the musical Avenue Q declares everyone is a little bit racist.  What it doesn’t state is that we are all also a little bit sexist, regionalist, and nationalist as well.  We naturally identify with people who are like us and are suspicious of those who are different.  If you are travelling in a foreign country and meet up with someone from your own country, there is an immediate affinity.  If they happen to also be from the same region (state, province, whatever) that bond is intensified.  If they are from the same city, you are like long-lost friends who have found each other in a sea of unfamiliar sights and sound, regardless of any other differences (race, religion, sex, etc.). This is how human beings are wired and how we have survived as a species.

The Biology of Prejudice

Prejudice and stereotypes are part of our genetic makeup, the biology allowing our species to survive.  When our ancestors heard growling and rustling in the shadows, the immediate sense of fear and suspicion is what saved them; those that didn’t, or couldn’t, make the association between these inputs and the savage beast about to attack, didn’t survive.  The fact our ancestors survived to give rise to the current population is a testament to their natural ability to take in their surroundings, match complex patterns of association, and make sound, rationale assessments.   While those assessments may not have always been correct, it only took one instance of being correct (or seeing someone else be incorrect) to cement the association and the behavior. Continued exposure to patterns matching our expectations, solidify and codify these reactions until they become unconscious and automatic.  We have little control over it.

This is not to say that we are born specifically racist or bigoted.  It is more that we are wired to trust the familiar, and distrust the dissimilar.  We naturally find safety in similarity, and discomfort in differences.  The more dissimilar, the more discomfort.   Given a choice between aligning ourselves with those that are like us, and those that are different, we will choose similarity every time.   This is the biology of prejudice.   It is not about sex, religion, race, nationality, or anything specific, it is simply a cognitive process that seeks affinity with those most like ourselves.  We are social animals and seek similarity.  It is who we are, the way we are wired, and all of us are subject to it.

What to do About It?

If this prejudice is hard-wired into our brains, what, if anything, can we do about it?  Interestingly, telling people to quit being prejudice may have the wrong effect by focusing on the differences instead of the similarities.  However, there are a number of things that individuals, organizations, and society at large can, and should, do to combat the negative aspects of prejudice.

As Individuals

As individuals, there are two things we can do.  The first is to accept and understand our own biases, and not discard them as characteristic of low moral fiber; they are a part of us and still have value in today’s world.  If you are walking alone in a foreign city at night and see a group of locals hanging out on the street corner, maybe it is okay to have a heightened sense of awareness.  It is not inherently bad to follow our instincts and to have caution; it has kept us alive for centuries.  Maybe, just maybe, it is appropriate to take steps, like crossing the street, in order to minimize your unease.  It does not make you a bad human being.  There is a distinct difference between being cautious and going out of your way to harm those who are unlike you.  Being cautious is okay; being mean is not.

Which brings us to the second thing we can do.  If you happen to be one of those locals hanging out on the street corner and notice someone crossing the street to distance themselves, don’t be so quick to take offense.  This act, which might be labeled a “mirco-aggression”, is not aggressive; no one has done you direct harm.  You don’t know that individual, just like they don’t know you.  Prejudice works both ways and is a general stereotype, a pattern that says nothing about you as an individual or the other person.  Reacting negatively to the situation does more harm as good, because it reinforces the original, negative prejudice.  Acknowledge your own biases and show empathy for another; focus on your similarities.

As individuals, we must accept that we are all prejudiced against the unfamiliar.  It biases our view of the world, including how we interpret other people’s behavior, and words.  What we see and hear, may not be what the person actually did or said; our interpretations of reality are just as biased.

As Organizations

Diversity is an essential ingredient to organizations, as diversity is a key ingredient to the innovation that drives success.  Left to their own devices, however, diverse groups of individuals will naturally segregate themselves based on their similarity or dissimilarity with other members of the group.  This works against getting the benefits of diversity because innovation comes from not just having diverse employees, but getting them to collaborate.  There are also things organizations can do to improve this.

Organizations should find ways of fostering shared experiences and socialization for their diverse teams.  Sponsoring a bowling team, a reading club, toastmasters, or anything that can developed shared experiences will help employees do two things: 1) it allows diverse teams to get beyond inherent prejudices by engaging with individuals and discovering hidden similarities; and, 2) it creates similarities that can override other differences. As we come to see our coworkers as more similar to ourselves than others, we change the dynamics of our prejudices. Coworkers take on new shared labels, like coworker, bowling buddy, or literature lover.  Just like the travellers from the same city who meet in a foreign country, even the smallest similarities can foster connections.

Another way organizations can foster cohesiveness is by employing great leadership.  Organizations are formed for a purpose, and great organizations are effective at connecting that mission to the contributions of each and every employee. Organizations creating passion for their purpose, create an environment of inclusion and solidarity.  This simple fact, once again, creates a new kind of similarity between diverse employees: they are all champions of the organizational mission.  By encouraging an “us against the world”, the “us” becomes a new, powerful form of similarity.

If organizations want to harness the full potential of diversity, they need to focus on creating similarity.  While this is counterintuitive and often runs contrary to most organization’s diversity programs, focusing on differences will not suffice.  Organizations must seek to redefine employee perceptions through inclusion and redefining who “we” are.

As a Society

As a society, we also need to quit focussing on our differences and foster our similarities.  It is not without coincidence many Sci-Fi storylines show all of humanity coming together when aliens invade earth. This scenario clearly creates a strong definition of “us” as humans, overcoming all of our other differences. It changes our calculus of difference as  race, religion, and national origin seem pretty insignificant compared to differences in species.  And, we can learn from that.  There are two great examples from the past year or so that illustrate how we could focus more on our similarities than our differences: the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the term “Radical Islamic Extremists”.

While any rational person should not be able to argue the statement that black lives matter (they obviously do), the movement has often generated contention because of the implication that only black lives matter.  Of course, this was not the intention of the organizers, but the resultant backlash is instructive.  By calling out labels, which focus on our differences, rather than our similarities, our biology gets in the way.  There are important issues that this movement seeks to address, and while many of them may affect one racial group more than others, solving them will not be effective when we focus on differences, rather than similarities.  More inclusive language, focused on similarities, may have been a better choice and promoted greater engagement.

A similar thing can be said for the term “radical Islamic extremist”.  Applying the label of “Islamic” immediately divides our social understanding of the issue.  Suddenly, we not only see how we are different from others because we are not radical extremists, but also because we may or may not be Islamic.  Highlighting this difference, instead of the ones that matter, does not help us work together to solve the problem.  Instead, it further divides us.  There should be no difference between how we react to Islamic extremists or Christian fundamentalist extremists.  The part that matters is “extremist” or “terrorist”, not what faith or doctrine they happen to hold. Further segmenting the issue only serves to blur who “us” and “them” are.

As a society, we need to work harder to focus on our similarities, rather than our differences.  This does not mean that we should attempt to create complete homogeneity and make all people exactly the same.  We just need to foster greater affinity between ourselves.  Only then can we truly celebrate our differences – from a place of safety and familiarity.

Coming Together

If we are going to survive as a species, we need to focus on that fact: we are all the same species.  We need to accept that we are inherently wired to be prejudiced towards people who are not like us, and foster our understanding of our similarities.  The more similarities we can find, the less the differences will matter.  Furthermore, in today’s globally interconnected world, it has never been easier to uncover our similarities.  It has never been easier for us to get beyond our prejudices and create new patterns of behavior.  If we find a way to come together and focus on our similarities, we not only make it easier to celebrate and harness our differences, but we may also find ways of eliminating negative bias for our future generations.


Is HR Sabotaging Your Innovation Efforts?

Re-post from LinkedIn from May 10, 2016

In today’s fast-paced, global economy, the traditional means of differentiation (land, capital and equipment) are becoming less differentiated and available equally to businesses large and small, old and new (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Teece, 1998). This leaves the organization’s only means of differentiation the ability to combine undifferentiated resources together in unique ways … i.e. innovation (Lawson & Samson, 2001; Teece, 2011, 2012). Regardless of the approach to innovation you subscribe to (there are dozens, see Bowonder, Dambal, Kumar, & Shirodkar, 2010), the depth, breadth, and diversity of an organization’s people are significant antecedents to innovation success (Crook, Todd, Combs, Woehr, & Ketchen, 2011; Kim & Ployhart, 2014).  As a result, HR is a critical part of your innovation efforts.

Pre-employment assessments have been the principal tool used by HR to ensure the organization only hires the best and brightest. The use of pre-employment assessments by large U.S. organizations has increased from 26% in 2001, to 57% by 2013; eight of the top ten private employers use pre-employment testing for at least some of their positions (Weber, 2015). Unfortunately, as previously mentioned many of the traditional assessment tools have proven to be less reliable than flipping a coin when it comes to predicting future real-world performance. This realization has led to the increased use of psychological value assessments.  Value assessments attempt to match the values of prospective candidates with the value profiles of existing, high performing employees, essentially creating a way to find people who share the same values and perspectives of existing employees.  The idea is to find people who think and perform like existing top-performers. While these assessments may not be any better at predicting future performance, Weber reported on organizations reducing 90-day attrition rages from 41% to 12% in the span of only 3 years of use. Given the significant costs of hiring and training, this reduction in short-term attrition can be a significant savings for the organization. As the ease of utilizing these assessments continues to increase, the costs to utilize them decreases, they become increasingly difficult for HR organizations to ignore.

Surely, value assessments have benefit to the organization, but that value is no longer in the attracting and hiring “the best and the brightest”, and become the value of “culture” or “fit”. Even the validation of one of the most popular value assessments, the Hartman Value Profile (HVP), shows almost no correlation to real-world performance even when performance is subjectively evaluated by other members of the organization (Weathington & Roberts, 2005). Furthermore, making hiring decisions based on how well individuals “fit” within the existing organization seems at odds with the need for diverse knowledge and perspectives for effective innovation. While no one is arguing cultural “fit” is not an important aspect to collaboration and productivity, it is potentially dangerous to be seduced by the perceived benefits of values-based pre-employment assessments.

Innovation starts, and ends, with people. Decades of research demonstrate that successful innovation requires, not just the best and brightest, but also diversity in the perspectives and knowledge of those people. If everyone has the same perspective, values, and beliefs, it will be increasingly difficult to create anything “new”. If we compound this by not hiring the best and brightest (because we are more concerned with fit), the effects could be devastating.

Be wary about letting your HR practices sabotage your innovation efforts before they even get started.


Bowonder, B., Dambal, A., Kumar, S., & Shirodkar, A. (2010). Innovation strategies for creating competitive advantage. Research Technology Management, 53(3), 19–32. Retrieved from

Crook, T. R., Todd, S. Y., Combs, J. G., Woehr, D. J., & Ketchen, D. J. J. (2011). Does human capital matter? A meta-analysis of the relationship between human capital and firm performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 443–456. doi:10.1037/a0022147

Drucker, P. F. (1992). The post-capitalist world. Public Interest, 109(Fall 1992), 89–101. Retrieved from

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kim, Y., & Ployhart, R. E. (2014). The effects of staffing and training on firm productivity and profit growth before, during, and after the Great Recession. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 361–89. doi:10.1037/a0035408

Lawson, B., & Samson, D. (2001). Developing innovation capability in organisations: A dynamic capabilities approach. International Journal of Innovation Management, 5(3), 377. doi:10.1142/s1363919601000427

Teece, D. J. (1998). Capturing value from knowledge assets: The new economy, markets for know-how, and intangible assets. California Management Review, 40(3), 55–79. doi:10.2307/41165943

Teece, D. J. (2011). Dynamic capabilities: A guide for managers. Ivey Business Journal Online, 1. Retrieved from

Teece, D. J. (2012). Dynamic Capabilities: Routines versus entrepreneurial action. Journal of Management Studies, 49(8), 1395–1401. Retrieved from 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01080.x

Weathington, B. L., & Roberts, D. P. (2005). Validation analysis of the Hartman Value Profile. Retrieved from

Weber, L. (2015). Today’s personality tests raise the bar for job seekers. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Diversity is not just a social issue, it is an economic one.

The problem with treating diversity as only a social-justice issue is that social issues rarely get solved without demonstrating how they indirectly affect all people, not just the disenfranchised.  All you must do is look at the history of social corporate responsibility (CSR) to see this effect (O’Toole & Vogel, 2011).  CSR was treated with mostly lip-service until two things were demonstrably clear in the marketplace: 1) consumer trends were changing to favor organizations demonstrating CSR principles; and, 2) CSR (or sustainable) practices made economic sense by reducing waste, improving operations, and elevating brand.  While the messaging is about being socially conscious, CSR business models can lead to competitive differentiation, which leading to profits. The only real academic argument against CSR is the implied altruistic nature of most CSR proponents; every corporation engaging in CSR generates either direct or indirect economic profit from those actions, meaning CSR is nothing more than “enlightened self-interest” (Smith, 2003).  As much as we should care about social issues, until they affect us directly, critical mass is not achieved towards solving them.

Diversity is no different.  We, as a collective species, should promote diversity (religious, nationality, sex, age, values, etc.) simply because it is ethical and just. However, because of the numerous permutations of bias, no single group of disenfranchised gains sufficient support to make true change solely on the basis of justice.   Unless we can demonstrate how biases affect everyone, progress will remain slow, or non-existent.  The best way to combat isses of diversity is through developing the enlightened self-interest of the greater society.

Fortunately, there is tremendous support that diversity is the key to economic profit and productivity benefiting everyone, including those who are not victims of bias.  It is no accident that our national headlines, business articles, and social commentary are inundated with stories about both diversity as well as innovation.  These two concepts are intimately conjoined. Without diversity of experience, thought, and perspective, innovation does not happen; without innovation, society will no longer grow and prosper, but decline.  This affects everyone.

Innovation is the only true competitive differentiator in today’s world economy (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Salchow Jr., 2016; Teece, 1998, 2004). Whether the innovation is a means to increase organizational efficiency, develop new business models, or an innovative product, the days of competing solely on accumulated land, capital, equipment, or market dominance are long over.  Those who don’t innovate, fail in the long-run. This affects people, companies, communities, and countries not just certain individuals. The inability to adapt to the global economy has decimated entire regions in the U.S. from miners, to steal producers, to manufacturers.   The number of companies and individuals directly affected is miniscule to the number of companies, individuals, and communities that have collapsed indirectly from these failures.  Lack of innovation capability affects us all.

Yet, we know that diversity in perspective, knowledge, experience, and capabilities is a foundation of innovation (Gladis, 2017). We know that diversity drives innovation (Niebuhr, 2010; Parrotta, Pozzoli, & Pytlikova, 2014), and creates economic rents, productivity, and success (Beck & Walmsley, 2012; Crook, Todd, Combs, Woehr, & Ketchen, 2011; Kim & Ployhart, 2014). Without diversity, we cannot hope to innovate because innovation is all about seeing things from a different perspective, a different value structure, a different life experience, a different cognitive lens.  It is through exploring and evaluating these differences that we see new possibilities, new solutions, and new ways of moving forward as companies, communities, and societies.  Diversity forces us to challenge what we think we know, and that leads to innovation.

It is sad that at a time when collaboration and access to diverse perspectives is so easy, we have instead taken to divisiveness, to segregation. We seek the illusionary safety of the known and miss the forest for the trees that don’t look, act, talk, or believe like us.  However, if we fail to see how diversity is an asset, not a liability, we fail our society. We fail, not because we violate the social contract, but because we will bankrupt society.  We fail by succumbing to what we believe is, rather than seeing what could be.  Without innovation, driven by diversity, we become static and eventually decline (Second Law of Thermodynamics anyone?).

Diversity is an economic imperative, not just a social one. The best way to secure your own future, is to seek out and embrace diversity. It is in our own self-interest.


Beck, J. W., & Walmsley, P. T. (2012). Selection ratio and employee retention as antecedents of competitive advantage. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5(1), 92–95.

Crook, T. R., Todd, S. Y., Combs, J. G., Woehr, D. J., & Ketchen, D. J. J. (2011). Does human capital matter? A meta-analysis of the relationship between human capital and firm performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 443–456.

Drucker, P. F. (1992). The post-capitalist world. Public Interest, 109(Fall 1992), 89–101. Retrieved from

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gladis, S. (2017). The Formula for Achieving Innovation. TD: Talent Development, (February).

Kim, Y., & Ployhart, R. E. (2014). The effects of staffing and training on firm productivity and profit growth before, during, and after the Great Recession. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 361–89.

Niebuhr, A. (2010). Migration and innovation: Does cultural diversity matter for regional R&D activity? Papers in Regional Science, 89(3), 563–585.

O’Toole, J., & Vogel, D. (2011). Two and a half cheers for conscious capitalism. California Management Review, 53(3), 60–76.

Parrotta, P., Pozzoli, D., & Pytlikova, M. (2014). The nexus between labor diversity and firm’s innovation. Journal of Population Economics, 27(2), 303–364.

Smith, H. J. (2003). The shareholders vs. stakeholders debate. MIT Sloan Management Review, 44(4), 85–90. Retrieved from

Teece, D. J. (1998). Capturing value from knowledge assets: The new economy, markets for know-how, and intangible assets. California Management Review, 40(3), 55–79.

Teece, D. J. (2004). Knowledge and competence as strategic assets. Handbook on Knowledge Management 1: Knowledge Matters, 40(3), 129–152.

Misconceptions about Certification

There seems to be wide misconceptions about what “Certification” and “Licensure” are all about.  Some see it as just the final part of an educational regimen.  Other’s see it as some kind of hurdle imposed by greedy organizations restricting access to some benefit.  These misconceptions and skewed perspectives, lead them to make demands affecting the very heart of what certification is all about and minimizing the value of the very certification they are working to achieve. First:

What Certification IS …

Certification is a legally defined classification stating a certifying body stands behind the capability of a certified individual to perform at some specific level of capability.  Certification is a very simple construct: it is the definition of a standard of performance, and a program assessing individuals to that standard.  That’s it, nothing more and nothing less.

Setting a standard is the first part of any certification.  Ideally, this standard is defined with help of people who perform the job.  In addition, a standard implies that everyone, no matter whether they have done the actual job for decades or participated in the development of the standard itself, must objectively demonstrate their capability in exactly the same manner.  Unless this standard is objectively applied equally to all individuals, it is not a standard.  Maintaining that standard is the foundation of certification value; it is what the certification stands for and how it should be used.

Creating an assessment of that standard is the second part of any certification.  This not only includes a mechanism assessing current capability, but also a program or process to ensure future capability.   Despite what many believe, creating an assessment is not a simple, ad hoc process where someone creates an assessment (test) and makes people take it to prove their ability.  It is, in fact, a highly rigours process backed by decades of scientific research on measuring cognitive ability (psychometrics), the sole purpose of which is ensuring the validity of the decisions made based on assessment performance.  It involves designing the assessment, job-task analysis of the job being assessed, formalized standards of item (question) writing, public beta-testing of items, psychometric evaluation of the item performance, assessment construction, and evaluation of appropriate scoring.  Done properly, it is time-consuming and costly (which is why some organizations don’t do it properly).

Finally, because knowledge and competence are perishable commodities, mechanisms must be put in place ensuring certified individuals remain capable in the future.  This is frequently done by limiting the length of time a certification is valid and requiring periodic re-certification (re-validation) of the individuals capability.  Other methods may include proving continued education and practice of the knowledge.  Regardless, the ongoing evaluation of certified individuals must adhere to the original standard with the same validity, or the standard no longer has value.

There is no hidden agenda to certification.  There is no conspiracy.  It is simply to establish a standard and assess individuals compared to that standard.

Misconceptions about Certification

Really, any belief beyond the design of a standard and the assessment to that standard, is a misconception about certification.  However, there are a number of misconceptions that often drive changes detrimental to the rationale of certification.  The most common ones relate to understanding what an assessment is for, training, and re-certification requirements.

Most people mistakenly assume the items within an assessment must represent the end-all-be-all of what someone should know.  They don’t understand that a psychometric assessment is not about the answers themselves, but the inferences we can make about performance based on those answers.  There is no way to develop an exhaustive exam of all the knowledge necessary to be competent and to deliver that exam efficiently.  However, we can survey a person’s knowledge and through statistical analysis infer whether they have all the knowledge necessary or not.  The answer to any specific question is less important than how answering that question correlates with competence.  Even a poorly written, incomplete, and inaccurate item can give us information about real world performance; in fact, evaluating how a candidate responds to such an item can be highly informative (although this is not a standard, intentional practice).  This focus on the items themselves, rather than the knowledge and competence the answers suggest, is what makes people incorrectly question the validity of the certification.

Similarly, many people think a certification should be able to be specifically taught.  As such, they believe a training course should be all that is necessary to achieve a certification.  However, this does not align with what we know about the development of human competence.  There is a big difference between knowing something, and knowing how to apply that knowledge competently.  Certification is an assessment of performance, not knowledge; and, as such, cannot be taught directly.  If someone can take a class and immediately achieve certification, either: A) the assessment does not evaluate actual performance; or, B) the course simply teaches the answers to the questions on the exam, rather than the full domain of knowledge.  In either case, you have biased the inferences made by the assessment.  Competence begins with knowledge, but must also have experience and practice.  This cannot be gained through a class, but only through concerted effort; you cannot buy competence.

Finally, many people also believe that once a certification has been achieved, it shouldn’t need to ever be evaluated again; or, that taking a course instead of an assessment should suffice.  The former belief simply ignores the fact performance capability is a perishable commodity: if you don’t use it, you lose it.  The latter once again confuses knowledge with performance.  How frequently this needs to happen, or whether continued education is sufficient to demonstrate continued performance is entirely dependent on the knowledge domain the certification attempts to assess.  In highly dynamic environments, this may need to be done much more frequently and rely more on assessments than in other domains; however, ongoing evidence of continued capability is a must if standards are to be maintained.

Leave Certification to the Professionals

The heart of the problem is that everyone seems to believe they are experts in the design of certification programs and assessments simply because they have participated in them.  The reality is that certification is a rigorous, research-based, and scientific endeavor.  The minimum requirement to be considered a psychometrician is a PhD; that’s a great deal of specialized knowledge most people do not have.  The decisions made are not arbitrary, nor are they made with the intention of anything other than maintaining the standard and making valid assessments of individuals according to that standard.

At the end of the day, the value of a certification is whether the people who achieve it can perform according to the standard the certification set forth.  If the certification cannot guarantee that, then it is not valid and has no value.  However, this requires people to actually understand what that standard is, what it means, and why it was created.   It requires people to accept there is a rigorous process accounting for all of the decisions and those decisions all support validity.  Finally, it requires people to understand that just because they may be experts in their field, they are not experts in certification.






Why you want to, but won’t, hire a Versatilist

The quality of an organization’s human capital is more important today than at any time before.  Global, dynamic markets eradicate the competitive advantages of capital, equipment, and land (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Hayton, 2005; Teece, 2011).  Today, differentiation comes from combining undifferentiated inputs and resources in unique ways (Dutta, 2012; Reeves & Deimler, 2011; Teece, 2007, 2011, 2012; Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997). As such, the source of competitive differentiation and strategic value is not having superior resources, but the skill and knowledge necessary to innovate.  One way to describe this organizational ability is dynamic capabilities (Teece, 2012). Dynamic capabilities characterize the organizational ability to sense and seize new opportunities and transform the organization, maintaining a competitive position.  Organizations with strong dynamic capabilities change and adapt to dynamic markets, are strong innovators, and build lasting strategic differentiation.  The only place this knowledge and skill resides is within the individuals working for the organization: human capital (Blair, 2002; Ployhart, Nyberg, Reilly, & Maltarich, 2014).

If we take the notion of dynamic capabilities and apply it to a person, instead of an organization, you get versatilists.  Versatilists are wired to sense and seize new opportunities, leverage new skills and abilities, and innovate who and what they are.  They are always changing and adapting to the world around them to become experts in new areas.  They don’t have access to different knowledge or methods of learning than other people, but they combine them in new ways to create new versions of themselves.  If organizations need dynamic capabilities to innovate and be successful, who better than versatilists to drive that effort.  This is why organizations should identify and recruit versatilists as employees.

Unfortunately, current recruiting and hiring strategies are ill aligned to this goal. Just look at your average Sr. level job description: 5 -7 years doing one thing with 10+ years in the same industry, with the same focus; another: 10 years in this job role, plus 5 years in specific industry. The job descriptions go on to list several dozen areas of knowledge and experience necessary to be considered a good fit.  These descriptions will use terms like “successful track record of”, “expertise in”, and “demonstrated experience with”. While this likely doesn’t sound out of place to many, especially those in HR and recruiting, it puts the job in a nice, little box tied with a bow.  The versatilists will rarely look twice for a couple of reasons.

First off, after 5-7 years doing the same thing, most versatilists are ready for the next challenge, not the next opportunity to do the same thing. The industry experience is less of an issue (although it’s still a bad way to get new ideas into your organization).  Versatilists don’t just adapt and change because of external forces; we’re not forced to go down a different path. We choose to do new things in new ways. There is an internal drive to know more, to do more, and to do it better.  Once a versatilists has become an expert in a role, we see little opportunity for growth, either personal or professional, and are naturally attracted to the next opportunity.

Second, unlike a generalist who tends to oversell their experience, versatilists, having become experts, generally undersell.  This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).  According to this research, people tend to estimate their knowledge on any topic as at, or slightly above average.  Those with the least amount of actual knowledge overestimate grossly what they know (and don’t know they are doing it).  However, this works with experts as well, who underestimate their knowledge by assuming it is also just at, or slightly above average (this is sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome).  Because versatilists become experts in each of their chosen areas, even if you ask for “expertise” in that specific area, they will not feel qualified generally. This is further compounded when the job description suggests the candidate should be competent in dozens of areas.

Consequently, organizations limit their ability to hire versatilists the minute they draft a job description, making themselves unattractive to the very human capital they should really want.  Organizations cannot become innovative or develop dynamic capabilities, and yet hire based on check boxes and job descriptions of what the job has always been.  Instead, organizations should be hiring the people that can adapt and change the job to what it needs to be tomorrow.  Unless you change the way you recruit and hire, you’re more likely to hire someone without the skills you thought you needed and no capacity to develop the skills you really need.



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