Avoid false proxies | Seth’s Blog

They’re toxic, wasteful and a tempting trap.

It’s one of the most important topics in my new book.

(And here’s a new podcast on it).

We need proxies. You’re not allowed to read the book before you buy it or taste the ketchup before you leave the store. We rely on labels and cultural cues to give us a hint about what to expect. We do judge a book (and a condiment) by its cover, all the time.

And hiring and managing people is far more important and risky than buying ketchup. So we look for proxies that may give us a clue as to how someone will ultimately contribute to our project.

False proxies include: Height, race, gender, attractiveness, charisma in meetings, famous college, etc.

It’s easy to imagine that we don’t fall to prey to these irrelevant signals, but a quick look at the height of elected officials makes it clear that we do–we keep picking the tall ones.

When building the Oakland A’s into a championship contender, Billy Beane discovered that every other team was using these sorts of proxies to scout who would be worth drafting. By finding an actual proxy, a useful one, he was able to assemble a skilled team on a budget.

Just because someone interviews well, is friendly, or looks like you doesn’t mean that they can do the work that needs to be done.

Now that we can measure so many things, we might as well put that to use. Attitude and skill are useful proxies, while the easy-to-measure stuff is simply an expensive and hurtful distraction.

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