Talent Assessment Archive

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Sun Tzu Top 7

1982 Reprint Oxford University Press 1963

1982 Reprint
Oxford University Press 1963

At number two in my top-seven list of Sun Tzu quotes from The Art of War, I have:

And therefore I say: ‘Know the enemy, know yourself; victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.’

Versions of this quote often include only the first sentence. They ignore the quote’s essence: an integrative, holistic perspective. Sun Tzu describes the oversight as one between victory and total victory. Sports’ count victories whether won by a little or much. Life is quite different; the extent of victory matters greatly. In warfare, it can determine whether enemies fight another day.

In business, we often ignore conditions that favor us. It’s human nature to over attribute success to our own efforts, especially when it’s difficult to measure an outcome’s other aspects.  A poor sailing crew can sail faster than an expert one with the wind behind them. Thus, success often blinds us, preventing us from achieving total victory (defined as solving problems).

An integrated perspective has tremendous consequences on many business problems. It means expanding the scope of our analysis more than we think we need to do. It means assuming the different aspects of the problem are integrated, not segregated. A problem in one area often affects other areas.

Yes, we can solve problems with the first sentence of Sun Tzu’s quote. However, to enjoy complete, perhaps long-term solutions, employing the second sentence is vital. It’s not enough to know simply ourselves and other people. Knowing the situation and the rhythm of events is important too, especially how we integrate with them. This can mean the difference between a band-aid solution and an enduring one, helping us avoid nasty surprises.

So, how do you integrate into your world?


Note: Versions of this quote usually appear in the 26th paragraph of the tenth chapter, Terrain.


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Dice (Twelve & Two)  [0691] One of the outside factors that tends to cause us to make the fundamental attribution error in assessing talent is randomness . . . or “luck” as it’s commonly known. For example, when an expert predicts an event, especially an unusual one, we tend to credit him with foresight.

In Jerker Denrell’s research though, as reported in the article “’Experts’ Who Beat the Odds Are Probably Just Lucky” (Harvard Business Review, April 2013 edition), it’s probably better that we attribute his success to luck. Denrell goes further by saying that “people who successfully foresee an unusual event tend to be wrong about the future over the long run.”

If a hundred people predict the role of two dice, it’s best to pick seven, the most likely number. However, if we wish to standout, two or twelve are better because few will pick these. Consequently, an expert in the backwaters of his field can suddenly move to the front by taking a chance on a wild prediction. It’s the experts’ version of the Hail Mary pass in football.

Randomness affects us all though, not just experts. This means we need to assess its influence on all jobs. For instance, randomness plays more in sales than it does in accounting; that’s why sales performance is less predictive of talent than accounting performance is.

Simply being aware of our tendency to over attribute will guard us from those who oversell theirs or others’ talents. While “the proof is in the pudding” is fine for making pudding, it doesn’t work in the expanded range of variables influencing business. Our control over the pudding-making process is far greater than our control over business factors. In short, assessing talent is more than just assessing past outcomes. It requires assessing conditions surrounding success.


Related reading: 12 Most Important Unspoken Truths about Experts


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3 Gold StarsIf we awoke one day with amnesia with life totally scrambled, would we have the same leaders? In his article, “The Turnaround Trap” (The New Yorker, March 25, 2013 edition), James Surowiecki discusses the ouster of Ron Johnson as CEO of J.C. Penney after his very successful stint at Target and finds that psychologists recognize:

. . . “the fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to ignore context and attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to inherent qualities.

Additionally, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Boris Groysberg, and Nitin Nohria include in their article “How to Hang On to Your High Potentials” (Harvard Business Review, October 2011 edition) under their heading “Align Development to Strategy” this conclusion:

. . . flexibility is key . . . companies that set rigid goals about the type or number of high potentials, instead of taking a dynamic approach, become complacent and don’t get much out of [high potential] programs.

If strategy is conditional and talent is conditional to strategy, then leadership talent is conditional too. However, we tend to ignore this. That’s why great players on losing teams are unlikely to receive “most valuable player” awards, why future CEO’s strive to lead hot, growing divisions, and why employment candidates from good companies receive preference.

We like to believe we have more control than we do. Attributing success directly to a person gives us comfort, security and certainty, providing clarity without having to integrate life’s fuzzy truths.

Thus, in rising to leadership do not underestimate the power in “being at the right place at the right time.” Surowiecki states this more negatively by concluding with this quote from Warren Buffett:

When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamentals, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.


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Identifying creativity isn’t easy, but it is possible and can be done without assessment tools. It begins with identifying outlying answers to our questions. There are differences between people who give standard answers and creative ones, and differences between people who can solve problems and people who are problem solvers.

In other words, when we ask people questions, we should to anticipate their answers. The more different they are from the ones we expect the more creative they might be. Of course, different is necessarily creative. For example, someone gives a different answer to a question, but when we ask, “How did you come to do that?” and they answer along the lines of, “Well, some friends suggested I do that,” the act might be different to us but was not creative to the person.

This technique is similar to polling, meaning we need several questions on divergent topics to use it well. We also need to adjust for cultural and environmental differences. For example, people might give us different answers because their culture is different from ours and we have little experience with theirs. Thus, while their answers might be different from what we expect, our expectations might be too narrow.

On the other hand, their answers can’t be unconnected to our question. For example, if we ask, “How do you normally get to work?” and they answer, “Breakfast,” while it’s different, there isn’t a connection, and we’ll need to ask for one.

Nevertheless, in the end, the more different we find people’s answers are from our expectations and from what we could expect from their situations, the greater their creative potential is. That brings up another point: most people don’t realize how creative they are so they haven’t developed it.


Related article: Test Your Creativity: 5 Classic Creative Challenges


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My October 13, 2011 post, “Eloquence Trumps Honesty in Trust & Likeability Wars,” discussed how style affects our assessment of talent. Now, in the November 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article, “It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It,” cites the research of Timothy DeGroot’s team from Midwestern State University indicating the attractiveness of leaders’ voices influence our perceptions of their effectiveness.

Again, the challenge is that we often don’t realize this influence is occurring. Moreover, we tend to believe other people are influenced but we aren’t. Combining this with the way labels influence our perceptions of content and how beauty and attractiveness influences us, we begin to see easily how incompetent people can receive promotions especially if they are confident.

In combating this influence, it’s important to begin with two perspectives:

  1. Acknowledge that style influences us (“That includes me!”)
  2. Remain focused on more intrinsic indicators of talents such as process (how a person works, thinks and interacts)

Often, we erroneously focus on results when we don’t factor in extraneously factors such as the team, timing and situation of the person’s experience. Perhaps the person was just along for the ride. Culture, processes and tools can also affect outcomes. When we fail to account for these, we tend fall into the trap of believing people are “winners” if they come from “winning organizations.”

In the final analysis, what makes assessing talent difficult is not the intrinsic analysis of it but rather being able to do so while trying to navigate the murky cloud of our own perceptions and biases. Many forces intuitively influence us on a subconscious level to stir up this mud.


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Classical business literature emphasizes focus: set goals, plan, and then focus on execution. However, it’s relatively void of focus’ downside: obliviousness to peripheral threats and opportunities.

In the mid-1900’s, when conditions didn’t change as dynamically as today’s, extensive research, planning and focus worked. Today, most research is outdated upon completion. Consequently, situational awareness (SA) becomes more important as part of an adaptive business strategy.

SA is the degree to which a person or company can be aware of surrounding conditions while focused on a task or plan. Ironically, SA came of age with aerial combat; you need to know where you are in the sky while focused on engaging enemy aircraft. If not, you could crash your plane from flying too low or from enemy fire simply because you were oblivious to those factors.

Context strongly influences our planning; however, if conditions forming that context are dynamically changing, that means our plan – the object of our focus – might become invalid by new threats and opportunities, and our focus and poor SA might cause us to overlook them. Psychological influences such as anchoring and optimistic planning will create additional pressures to keep us focused and ignorant.

These will also influence our assessment of talent by tending to make it too static and historical. Rather than basing it on people’s potential within new conditions, we will tend to base it on performances under old conditions. We will tend to believe that successes and failures transfer rather than assess actual skills and actual aptitudes within a new set of actual conditions. More simply, this is pigeonholing.

Technology and the internet strongly influence today’s dynamic conditions. Our focus shouldn’t blind us. SA will help us see the many threats, opportunities and talents that will influence our success.


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Intuitive approaches often work because we don’t believe they do. Advertising is an excellent example: it influences us because we often believe it doesn’t.

This extends to our complaints about politicians not answering the question. Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton researched this and were asked to “Defend Your Research” in “People Often Trust Eloquence More Than Honesty” appearing in the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. They found:

People who dodge questions artfully are liked and trusted more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish.

In fact, when answerers perform the dodge effectively, less than half of the people could remember the question accurately. The key rests in the answer’s first ten words by disrupting the cognitive link we have for the question and expected answer. In everyday life, we like to complain about the fast-talking salesperson; however, on a higher level, fast-talking becomes eloquence. It’s here that we increasingly trust and like eloquence more than honesty.

Even though I promote the practical understanding and application of intuition in business on this blog, people can use intuitive approaches for ill or good. For instance, my guest 12 Most post, lists ways to influence people intuitively to build morale; however, people can use these techniques for questionable purposes too.

How do we defend ourselves? There are two broad introductory ways:

  1. Realize people can influence us intuitively and subconsciously even if we believe they can’t
  2. Raise our awareness regarding intuitive approaches

In this way, we can begin accounting for these natural biases in our decision-making and actions. However, believing others can influence us without our knowledge is scary for many of us, especially if we believe in the supremacy of the conscious mind and free will.


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The May 21, 2011 edition of The Economist had two articles casting a cloud over the skill inherent in successful stock market investing. Why is this important to intuition? It’s because we tend to have an emotional bias that overweighs outcomes in the evaluation of skill.

In fact, the article, “Poker-faced”, cites Steve Levitt and Thomas Miles of the University of Chicago as having found more skill present in poker than in stock investing. Simply stated they found that historically good poker players tend to do better than those without a history of success do. However, such a correlation didn’t exist with stock investing, and thus, they concluded there is “little evidence of skill” in stock investing. Thus, we could claim that poker is more like investing and the stock market is more like gambling.

The other article, “The Missing Link”, reinforces this unpredictability of the stock market by surveying several studies saying there is no correlation that a good economy translates into rising stock prices. Yet, in spite of these articles, we often see investment professionals tout their historical performance to attract additional clients.

Nevertheless, we know that top poker players don’t always finish on top; it’s not unusual for them to go home early. Moreover, poker is more self-contained, more controllable than the stock market. Everyone plays with the same, small, finite deck of cards and, depending upon the tournament, the same amount of money. By comparison, the stock market is anarchy.

We like to believe there is a direct link between outcomes and skills as opposed to having outcomes linked to a myriad of forces beyond our control. The belief gives us security in an uncertain world.  Yet, it will encourage us to see more skill in stock investing than in poker.

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Designer labels encourage us not only to believe that the wearer has status but also trustworthiness, talent and many other positive attributes. In fact, the label is more important than the clothes themselves.

In the article, “I’ve Got You Labelled”, appearing in the April 2, 2011 edition of The Economist, Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands reached this conclusion from their research. While initially far-fetched, we find that a piece of art can fluctuate enormously in value depending upon whom people think painted it even though the art itself does not change. It’s also why people persistently knowingly buy knockoffs; they want the label.

One of the needs labels address is security. As we saw in my posts, Is Freedom for Everybody? and People Follow Leaders Not Facts, not all people are comfortable making their own decisions; they want others to make them for them. Status labels do exactly that; they help people determine what is good. The attributes of what makes clothing good such as the material, stitching, design, fabric, dyes, thread, etc., can make a qualitative determination daunting.

What is fascinating from Nelissen and Meijers research, is that this qualitative stamp not only influences our perceptions of the clothes but also the wearer. The qualitative effect is transferable, and it occurs on a subconscious level.

From an intuitive perspective, this means we can upgrade ourselves simply by wearing the right labels. This is what politicians do when they try to tie themselves closely to their country’s flag. This is what manufacturers do when they invest huge amounts in the packaging of their products. Presentation strongly influences our evaluation of content; plating affects our food’s taste. Thus, this principle holds true for the presentation of our ideas.

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When we pigeonhole people, we are defining their talents by their jobs rather than looking at their talents. The most obvious example of this is the resume. When we define someone talents by their experiences, we are essentially pigeonholing them.  We are relying upon their experiences to tell us what their talents are; we are not relying upon our assessment of their talents to determine what their experiences could be.

Furthermore, we will tend to view any additional talent we come across within the context of those experiences. For instance, we will tend to assume that the attention to detail that an engineer displays will only tend to exist within a mechanical realm and not within an artistic one. This also works in reverse. If a job does not require extensive interpersonal skills, we will tend to believe that the person has few.

Figure #1 shows the influence context can have on our decision making. It asks, “Which dot is the darkest?”



Figure #1: Which dot is darkest? 

The right one seems to be; however, what Figure #2 shows is that not only is there more than two dots, but they are all the same color. It’s their contexts that either make them lighter, darker or invisible. Similarly, we can easily miss people’s talents because they don’t come into play within a particular job.



Figure #2: All The Same 

This came to me when a 7-year stock broker was hired as a banker. His employer still sent him through the same basic investment training that all the other bankers went through. This also happened with a 3-year investment manager who managed multi-million dollar portfolios.

As an exercise, try assessing people’s talents without asking what they do or looking at their resumes. You will see how dependent we’ve become on relying upon those contexts to determine which dot is darkest.

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