16 agosto 2011

Don’t hire yourself

As much as everyone nowadays talks about diversity, it is still all-too-common for managers and leaders at all levels to hire people that act and think like themselves.

The reasoning behind this practice is that by working with people that think like us, it may become easier to collaborate and get to an agreement on tough questions. That may be true, but the real danger of doing this is that we may be just amplifying our weaknesses, instead of strengthening our team.

The importance of this divergent thinking was clear to me when I watched this TED talk from Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice. As someone who has suffered from analysis paralysis while trying to do a simple activity such as buy flour at the supermarket (it is insane the number of different types of flour out there), I could definitely relate to the message that sometimes “more is less”.

Still, as I was watching this talk, I also remembered another TED talk, this one by Malcolm Gladwell, telling the fascinating story about how my favorite type of tomato sauce (chunky) came to exist, and even more importantly, talking about the importance of adding more choices to improve customer’s satisfaction with a product.

Wait a minute! Two great TED talks, from two very intelligent authors, and one apparently contradicting the other? Yep, precisely that.

In fact, the more I thought about this, the more I could come up with additional examples. And this one deserves a story.

A few years ago, before I joined FAST Search (and way before Microsoft acquired FAST), I was working at a large ecommerce site in Brazil. Our biggest reference in the industry was Amazon (obviously), and one day my manager came to me and said I was going to work on this project that aimed to implement a recommendation systems similar to the one at Amazon. And that’s what we did, through many brainstorming sessions and lots of stored procedures and batch jobs, we created from scratch a recommendations system, giving any existing user access to their “own store” in the site, where they could get recommendations tailored for them based on their previous purchases, their product ratings, their wishlist or even their browsing history (very important for new users with no purchase history).

The biggest thing about this project to me, besides the incredible challenge that it was to pull it together, was that I got completely hooked on the idea of recommendations, in the idea of personalization, in the idea of providing a user with a selection based on his/her taste. If you asked me, personalization was the best thing since sliced bread. And in my mind it continued to be, even after I left this ecommerce company to join FAST Search and then ended up here at Microsoft.

My views on personalization remained the same until life presented me with another eye-opening talk (at this point you must have realized I’m addicted to TED talks), this time exposing the dangers of online “filter bubbles”. If you haven’t watched the talk yet, Eli Pariser makes a very compelling case on the risks we face if we start to only get what we like, leaving out everything that is not directly related to what we most like or do. The risk is that our view becomes narrow and we may start to think that all of our ideas are true/brilliant/correct just because everywhere we look and everything we see seems to confirm our views, when in fact it is just the systems we use that have “become nothing more than a simple, dumb mirror”.


Next time you have an open position in your team, remember the importance of truly embracing a diversity of ideas that could bring about the kind of innovation to help your company be a leader in any market... and then make sure you don’t hire yourself.