Hiring ideas, and *not* hiring the top 1%

The legendary head of the Prussian Army’s General Staff, Moltke, had a pretty rigorous process for identifying his top staff — the elite recruits that would be trained for top officer positions around the military.They built an insanely strong army that had a big impact on the American military’s design too. The process: Very 1%. Hard tests, then hard courses, then the top few got selected.

This is the constant temptation in elite organizations as they grow – we are great, we attract the best, let’s select the best.

But there are two wonderful points to take from engineer-deities Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, and another one from Moltke.

1. Hire people who are smart and get things done. 

Here is the piece. Much more is there, but a basic lens is to make this simple pair of qualities the goal. They can figure things out, and they can take action, producing results. In my own thinking this boils down even further to producing “visible work” with little setup (you state a goal or a briefly outlined task, and they give you something back that meets the goal).

2. The myth of hiring the best.

Here is the piece. It’s not practical to search for, attract, select, then retain “the best”. Partly because you are bad at it (don’t know what the best is). And in particular because bestness often does not fit with personal qualities that some jobs (like startups) require (like risk-taking, creative problem solving, alternative-motivation that doesn’t fit with pure achievement, or just weird skills like neurostimulation engineering or something).

3. There is a role for laziness.

One thing Moltke is famous for is this great 2×2 that Nick Pinkston told me about this week – the dumb and lazy matrix.

Smart and hard-working — great staff officers. Make detailed plans.

Dumb and lazy — good for menial tasks. They will do the task and do little harm. <– surprising from the “Never Hire B Players” view of the world one hears from “hiring the best”.

Dumb and hard-working — very dangerous, create irrelevant work. Fire them at once. <– also surprising. Industriousness is counter-productive for bad bureaucrats

Smart and lazy — suited for the highest office!! They will find the easiest way to accomplish the mission. <– this is when one starts appreciating the different between Valedictorians and PhD dropouts.

Finally, how did Moltke recommend leaders manage their troops? 

Some lines from Moltke:

In war, everything is uncertain.

A favorable situation will never be exploited if commanders wait for orders. The highest commander and the youngest soldier must always be conscious of the fact that omission and inactivity are worse than resorting to the wrong expedient.

War cannot be conducted from the green table. Frequent and rapid decisions can be shaped only on the spot according to estimates of local conditions.