Darwin, the Demon, and the Talent Myth

Geoffrey Moore’s piece in the current Harvard Business Review has a great title: “Darwin and the Demon”. While it may not have been the intent — and it wasn’t even really the subject — the article did get me thinking about entropy, innovation, and Maxwell’s demon. 

Even the best organizations have people with wildly varying levels of skill and effort. There was a piece in last week’s WSJ implicitly about the issue: it described how Enron’s now-defunct networks group had run an internal recruiting effort to staff up using the best people in other parts of the company, the result being that the new group’s relative success was more than counterbalanced by the havoc it wreaked on other parts of Enron by stealing stars.

Some, like Malcom Gladwell, would say that was inevitable, a sort of unintended consequence flowing from falling for the “the talent myth”. In other words, Enron tumbled for the idea that people make organizations smart, when the truth, he argues puckishly, is closer to the reverse.

So, how effective is it to sort employees in an effort to create better and more innovative teams? Can you really, a la Maxwell’s sorting demon, profitably sort people in organizations, finding those that are “vibrating fastest” and cluster them together? Or is the effort required — both initial and ongoing — rarely worth it?

Gladwell argues that it isn’t worth it. Here he is writing incisively on the errant War for Talent:

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coördinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.