Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When hiring use survivor bias

I have had opportunity to conduct interviews on behalf of my company for over a year now. Most of my colleagues who have been on the interview panel have asked me why I spend lot of time asking candidates about tasks and jobs that they failed at. Well this is what helps me differentiating between the good and the best candidate. I call this technique ‘Survivor Bias’ – an important statistical principle that can greatly affect the future of my company and quality delivery to my clients.

Let me site this with a simple example

During World War II, the English forces sent planes each day to bomb the Germans. As you might expect, several of these planes were shot down. And, the ones that did come back typically returned with multiple bullet holes. Now, the English obviously wanted to maximize the chances of its planes and soldiers returning home so English engineers studied the planes that returned. In doing so, they found patterns among the bullet holes. Specifically they found lots of holes on the wings and tail of the plan, but few in the cockpit or fuel tanks.

As a result, the English added armored plating to the wings and tail. As you might have already concluded, this was the wrong thing to do. The better decision would have been to add armored plating to the cockpit and fuel tanks. For, the planes that were shot in those places were the planes that were shot down and never returned. The English engineers' analysis missed this data because these were the planes that they were unable to examine. This is "survivor bias"-- their inability to include this critical data in their analysis since it was unavailable or didn't "survive".

So why does it matter to you when you are talking to a brilliant candidate with superb success record? When you hire candidates who have only worked at successful companies, you may fall victim to survivor bias. They may not have learnt many of the lessons that individuals learn when they fail.

Now I am not advising that interviewer shouldn’t go for candidates who claims that every one of their projects have been successful. I personally believe to differentiate a good candidate and the best ones, as an interviewer you should use survivor bias.

Do take couple of minutes to share (below) the unique techniques you have used while interviewing for aspirants for your company or portfolio.


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