Saturday, May 31, 2014

Achieving Meritocracy

Andrew D Atkin:

We all work for ourselves - not our companies. That is the problem.

In my never too humble opinion, meritocracy is everything. If you can get the right people in the right places, then it's hard to fail. Revolutions become unnecessary as rational reform becomes automatic, corruption becomes trivial and self-sterilising, and mistakes are quickly rectified and learnt from.

A fantastical scenario of course, but it's worth looking at how we might get closer to that ideal.

The most potent disciplining force we know of today for driving a merit-focused reality is, from a general outlook, competitive free markets. But even the private sector is still highly traditional and less merit-focused compared to what it could be, in my view.

Relating to large organisations in particular, I would like to introduce an idea for reforming how the power structure works to the end of optimising merit.

Most would agree I think that virtually every employee in an organisation works first for themselves - not their company. They are only interested in their company's success insofar as it equates to their own. And they are only interested in a subordinate's or superior's success insofar as it equates to their own. This is a problem because it leads to internal competition of the type that leads to unprofessional bias. If you think that's not true then look at the way you choose your words so carefully when talking to your boss - a direct expression of the (rational) fear of unprofessional bias. (I would also describe it as a communication breakdown, but that's getting off track a bit).

Unprofessional bias equates to hiring/firing/promotion/demotion decisions that are not based squarely on merit. This obviously damages efficiency and the bottom-line. Not only do you get more b-grade people holding positions that they shouldn't, but you signal to the more talented that they're wasting their time in the organisation they're in (so they go elsewhere).

The less meritocracy you have, the more toxic your selection criteria becomes. In a worst case (and sometimes realistic) scenario you may have no choice but to be corrupt to even get ahead at all.

So how do we reduce bias and toxic incentives, and improve merit?

One of the best ideas I can think of is to simply externalise personnel decisions so that all final-say recruitment decisions, from the bottom to the top of an organisation, are made by a specialised body that does not run the company operationally and is only answerable to the shareholders. A parallel hierarchy, if you like - an "external court".

The effect of this would be that any subordinate can speak freely (though you would expect respectfully, of course) to any superior because they're no longer threatened by their bosses all-powerful and potentially non-negotiable (and even hidden) opinion. A subordinate can have their trial in an objective "court" for performance appraisals and applications for higher positions. Their professional future will not be dictated by the singular opinions of their supervisors, of which can be bias (or even outright misrepresentative) for any given number of reasons.

What this system would do is simply enhance objectivity and openness in decision making, and that in turn allows for the evolution of a more precise meritocracy. That can only be a good thing - at least if you're a shareholder.

But, you would think that if this was the way to go, then surely we would have done it by now? Surely the shareholders would have woken up to the idea that their in-house 'old boy's clubs' might be taking them for a bit of a ride, and likewise review how their hierarchies are formed?

Nope. The world is a slow learner. For example, shortly after the Asian crises a couple of decades ago I remember seeing a documentary about a company based in Japan. This company had an extreme tradition-based hierarchy that they were forced to reform for their survival. They brought in some recruitment experts from America who were in turn given the power to completely redefine who went where and did what within that company, and of course in the name of objective merit. Sadly it took a desperate situation for the obvious to be actioned in practice. But like they say, turkeys don't vote for an early christmas. Initiatives like this will usually need to come from shareholders. Your executive officers probably won't be interested.

A star company focused on Merit:

My favourite company, Google, is moving in this more scientific direction with their thinking and techniques. Google is so massive as an organisation that it can make a study case out of its own recruitment structure, and to the end of testing to see if they're getting the best results in terms of having the best people in the right places. No traditions and assumptions - just data.

One (great idea) they've introduced is mandatory surveys given to subordinate staff where they rank their managers on given variables. This has apparently been highly effective in increasing managerial performance and transparency, and curiously the act of having these surveys alone has been shown to increase their performance (yep, as you would expect they take more care with how they relate to their staff).

Another curious thing Google has done is tested traditional credentials to see what they're really worth. Their own research has indicated that the on-the-job performance difference between a straight-A student and a 'pass' student is almost negligible. Their findings have induced them to not take grade-point-averages very seriously anymore, and so they don't.

[Good link on Google, here]

(I wonder if they'll test for the value of experience soon? Speaking personally, I would bet they'll find a rapid diminishing-return with that one as well...all depending on the type of job of course).


But again, look at how long it takes to wait for people to do the obvious. Achieving Merit needs to be taken seriously. The significance of having a company run by the best people you can get is just too important, especially in an age of ever-greater innovation where being competitive is not as easy as just conforming soldier-style to a prior-established structure.

Google understands this only too well and they have taken real action to that end. I salute them. I hope other's will learn from their examples too.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Importance of 'Depth' Psychology

Andrew D Atkin:

When you put monkey's in a bad zoo they tend not to breed. In this sense they act abnormally (yet normal, relative to the environmental pressures).

Now imagine I brought a behavioural psychologist into the scene and asked him to cure my monkey's of their infertility. The behavioral psychologist, trained in Pavlovian conditioning, then gets to work setting up a head-mounted apparatus that delivers electrical pain to my monkeys (for negative reinforcement) coupled with a small dried banana dispenser (for positive-reinforcement).

Over time, my monkey's are pushed and pulled with reinforcements into all different kinds of behaviours, and eventually my behaviourist even gets them to mate and have babies - in spite of the bad zoo. Hence the monkey's are cured of their abnormality, and act normal.

But are those monkey's really normal? Of course not. With behavioural conditioning all I've really done is layered one perverse reality over the top of another. However, the difference is invisible to the eye of surface-level research because the behavioural outlook, by definition, is blind to the deeper "why" behind the behaviour.

Now imagine I had another zoo, nice and green and spacious, for another collection of monkey's. In this good zoo I find the monkey's breed and with no external influence required. However, there is no difference between the outcomes between the good and bad zoos from the behavioural perspective. The monkey's all seem the same - they breed all the same.

So why should we care for the difference? What does it matter if different animals do the same [supposedly ideal] things for different reasons? Well, imagine if we opened the gates on the conditioned monkey's living in the bad zoo and the non-conditioned monkey's in the good zoo, too.

With this change in the environment we could get very different reactions. The monkey's in the bad zoo could very well let out their "craziness" and run-rampant all over town, or maybe just huddle together in terror because the change made them desperately insecure. Conversely the monkey's in the good zoo might just look at their opened gates with amusement, going for a wander beyond them for the sake of satisfying idle curiosity, to return later when they get hungry or lonely.

My point is the behavioural perspective can't tell the difference. That is, they can't predict how animals will or won't react to change when they don't understand the 'why' behind their behaviour. Your perfectly normal monkey's that are acting normal but for only abnormal reasons could nonetheless be a ticking time-bomb; or maybe just incredibly miserable and under deep stress (most definitely, from my example).

Obviously the same can be said for humans. Our behavioural perspective toward humanity, generally provided by the psychology world today, often tends to ignore real needs and real feelings. The focus is about "outcomes" rather than sincerely satisfied people. And when we get the outcomes we want we hang them on our walls like a trophy, all the while ignoring the human realities--the good and the bad--behind it.

Indeed, we tend to just assume people are happy because they act how we think they should act, for a satisfied life. But is a breeding monkey (or human) that doesn't really want to breed happy? I doubt it. And will they join the next Hitler show just after we thought we trained them to be morally perfect, for if that opportunity ever exposed itself to them? Quite possibly. A 'conditioned' morality is very different to real humanity (here).

Behaviourism certainly has its place, so long as it knows its place. But it's depth psychology that looks closer and deeper into the human condition to give us insights into who we really are and what we're really doing to and with ourselves. It can tell us what behaviourism can't - and what we need to understand. It's depth psychology that can help to tell us if we're really normal or just playing some socially-conditioned game.

Relevant 'depth psychology' link here.