Hiring Is Complex With No One ‘Right’ Answer

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May 24, 2019

Working with high growth companies as an executive recruiter, I am always coming into a state of change. I’m hired to work on filling a role, which means either someone has left, or changes in the business — typically growth — necessitate a new role. Dealing with all of this change, I decided to take a graduate class in Leading Through Change, as I see my role not just to help my client fill a position but to be an expert in working through the uncertainty, anxiety and conflict that occurs during the change process.

As I prepared to take my first midterm in 23 years, I found myself thinking a lot about the Cynefin framework, developed by Snowden and Boone, that categorizes issues into five contexts – simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disordered. These contexts can be used by leaders to diagnose situations and use the appropriate skills for the situation.

In the case of hiring, we tend to look at this as a complicated situation; one where the variables are known, experts can be brought in when more answers are needed and reaching decisions takes time, but there is ultimately at least one right answer.

For example, my car was making a rattling sound the other day so I tried to diagnose the problem myself. When I couldn’t, I took it to a mechanic, who is an expert in diagnosing rattling. After working through the different variables, it turned out I needed $2,500 worth of work on my suspension. This was a complicated problem with an expensive solution.

When hiring, organizations tend to go through a process of posting, screening, interviewing and hiring. There may be multiple sub-steps within each category, and the process can be complicated further by multiple stakeholders, but the overall approach is to move candidates through a funnel and come out with the best one on the other end. For tough searches or critical roles, an expert like me is often brought in to infuse the process with best practices and mitigate risk or conflict.

Hiring as a moving target

When you apply the Cynefin framework to hiring, however, we find that hiring is in fact a complex challenge with no right answer. Every hire creates an unpredictable and unique situation with an overwhelming amount of information.

People are not cars. While we try to fill our hiring process with best practices and multi-point assessments to increase the ability to predict future performance, the reality is that the variables, and their interaction, are constantly changing and can’t be predicted.

The good news is that complex situations are opportunities for innovation, creativity and new approaches to the business. Complex situations require leaders to experiment, embrace conflict and collaborate. While a framework for the hiring is helpful, allowing for exploration within the process allows us to find the best hire rather that the “right” hire. Creating an environment for exploration means involving stakeholders, embracing conflict and pushing boundaries.

Finding what you weren’t looking for

This could mean talking to candidates who “on paper” might not check all the boxes, digging into how they think rather than what they have done. You could turn the hiring process on its head and have potential candidates shadow their team, debriefing after, rather than peppering them with questions about what they might do in situations for which they have little context. It could also mean increasing your comfort with risk and approaching the search as an opportunity to find what you didn’t know you needed rather than a “know it when you see it” approach.

For lower-stakes hiring, taking the “complicated” approach may be good enough. But for critical roles that have the power to really change the organization, treating the hire as a complex challenge not only can improve the end result but can create an opportunity to build trust and collaboration.