Hiring is a sufficiency problem, not an optimization problem

In the quest to find “the best person for the job” most hiring managers are making a critical mistake: They treat hiring as an optimization problem.

What is an optimization problem? What is a sufficiency problem?

I wrote last week about how all business problems are ultimately sufficiency problems. Go to that post for more context, but here’s the difference between optimization problem and sufficiency problems in a nutshell:

In an optimization problem, you are trying to get to the best outcome as defined by some comparative measure. Optimization problems rarely are “completed” except in cases with a severely limited scope.

In a sufficiency problem, you are trying to get to an outcome that is good enough based on your defined acceptability criteria. Once the acceptability criteria are met, the project is done.

The problem with treating hiring as an optimization problem

The problem with treating hiring as an optimization problem is that optimization problems require a narrowly-defined solution space. It can take a team of engineers years to eke out more performance from a car engine. How can a hiring manager find “the best person” for a job when there are literally billions of people out there, each of which might have decades of unique experience to consider?

Many hiring managers “solve” this problem by developing (or copying) a list of 30 position requirements and throw the problem over the wall to recruiters. Frequently, these requirements aren’t well thought-through and are reflective of a hiring manager’s own experience and biases. Ultimately, this practice not only screens out many who would do a perfectly fine job, but adds unnecessary burden to recruiters and shifts the process away from finding someone who can do the job and more toward finding someone who is most like the hiring manager.

Why you should start thinking of hiring as a sufficiency problem

When you are hiring someone for an open position, what are you trying to solve? If you strip your hiring needs down to your most essential priorities, you probably come up with something like the following:

You want someone who can do the job and who is able to come up to speed within your timeframe and budget.

If you need someone who can do the job and who can get up to speed in a reasonable amount of time, it is a much better use of your time to hire the first person who fits your requirements than to sift through hundreds of resumes in pursuit of “the best person.” Yes, it is likely that that “best person” will also be able to do the job and come up to speed, but you’re overshooting your requirements with little upside. At the end of the day, you’ll save yourself time and effort by thinking sufficiency.

How to start thinking about sufficiency when hiring

If you want to save yourself a lot of time and hassle when hiring, you should start thinking of hiring as a sufficiency problem. Here’s how to get started.

Understand your requirements

First, if you are hiring, you need to take time to understand the requirements of the job you are posting. This is an essential step because solving sufficiency problems require you to define your requirements beforehand.

  • Inventory your needs in terms of delivery to your organization. What will this person need to be doing day-to-day to meet the needs of your organization? What will be their key outcomes?
  • Map those needs to skills and knowledge. What technical competencies does this person need to have? How about industry knowledge or contacts?
  • Understand your training expectations. Which skills or industry knowledge are you willing to train on?

Be deliberate about the job posting

Second, be deliberate in developing your position requirements. Don’t think of it as a wish list. I’ll have more about this later, but companies who are leading in this area only have 2-3 requirements in their “minimum qualifications” and 3-5 qualifications in their “preferred qualifications.”

  • Keep a list of requirements short and easily “screenable.” Your recruiter or screener should be able to sort based on 2-3 minimum qualifications within seconds of reviewing a resume.
  • Focus on skills and knowledge rather than experiences in your preferred qualifications. You probably don’t need someone to have a specific job title; you need them to demonstrate that they have a specific skillset.
  • Provide a variety of examples of how someone can demonstrate a required skill.

Change your interview process

Finally, consider altering your interview process. When you receive a resume from a candidate, try to answer the question, “Does this person have the skills and abilities to do this job?” Don’t try to compare them against other candidates. If someone looks like they will meet the requirements of the job, interview them. If they demonstrate that they have the necessary skills and experience in the interview, hire them.

  • Evaluate candidates in a vacuum; don’t compare them to other candidates.
  • If someone is interesting, proceed with an initial conversation and interviews.
  • Don’t hold a promising candidate in order to interview multiple people.

Bottom line

Thinking sufficiency, rather than optimization, when approaching your hiring process can save you time, eliminate a source of bias in your hiring practices, and ensure that you hire someone who can do the job. But this change of mindset requires a change in the way to approach the hiring process. Use the tips above to get started.

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