Optimization is great for some things, but can cost us when selecting new talent.

Please meet my purple couch. A custom-made, velvety soft, 1920s style, pucker-backed, purple couch.

I went on a frustratingly long journey to find this couch. It started with me wanting a sofa that I would absolutely love. I said, “I’ll know it when I see it. I will have an ‘aha’ moment.”

So I went shopping. I saw big couches and small ones, contemporary and traditional ones, purple and red and brown ones. But in 20 store visits, my ‘aha’ moment never came.

And therefore I went the custom route, with some help from a decorator. It took three months longer than I had hoped. And it was way more expensive than I’d wanted.

This couch looks beautiful. Well, I think so. But after all that rigamarole, it’s still not perfect:

–          I couldn’t sit in it beforehand. Such is the nature of custom-built furniture. So I was nervous about how comfortable it would be. And this couch is actually NOT the most comfortable.

–          When I moved, the couch didn’t fit up the new stairwell. I couldn’t rightly leave this masterpiece on the street. Oh, no. Instead, I ended up hiring a company to saw it into pieces, move it, then re-assemble it.

My expectations were really high with this lavender leviathan. I set out to find a couch that was a perfect 10 but my experience as an owner has been closer to an 8. I probably could have gotten a different couch much faster that was also an 8, and therefore been just as happy.

I was an optimizer, but I could have been a satisficer. (Satisfice = satisfy + suffice, by the way.)

Optimizers Versus Satisficers

Optimizers endlessly expand and analyze their choices, and take a long time before finally moving forward. Sometimes they don’t even make a decision.

Satisficers search the available alternatives and efficiently pick one that meets their threshold.

Here’s the kicker: Research shows that satisficers are happier about their decisions than optimizers.
Einsteining a decision rarely results in a better outcome.

This is because the optimized solution is only marginally better than other solutions, and is seldom worth the extra cost of surfacing it.


The Case For Being A Recruiting Satisficer

Often when recruiting, we say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” We hold out for the perfect hire. We try to optimize.

But when we enter optimizer territory, we can stumble:

–          We often spend more money and time than we need to.

–          We encounter tradeoffs that we weren’t expecting. For instance, we hope for our perfect 10 to not have any flaws because, well, she’s our 10 and we are stretching our budget to hire her. But of course, she is not perfect — no one is. In fact, if we look around us, we will likely see a crew of imperfect, lopsided, yet highly competent people. It’s curious that we expect new hires to be so perfect when we are not perfect ourselves.

–          Our decision-making abilities can suffer. (What was I thinking, buying a couch I couldn’t even sit on first?! But I was distracted by choices like the right shade of purple for the buttons and pillows. This diminished my cognitive capacity.)

I believe that when hiring, we need to be aware of the costs of being an optimizer and the benefits of being a satisficer.

After all, marketing has become more agile. And more real-time. By the time we engage our perfect 10, our needs may have changed.

(Note: Optimization can work wonderfully for many marketing/business decisions. But optimization applied to selecting top talent is still nascent. In the words of one CEO of a marketing analytics company whom I asked about this recently: “Hiring is too important to entrust to analytics!”)


Making The Switch

The moment of switching from an optimizer to a satisficer is a very scary one, as I have seen from shepherding clients through recruiting initiatives. This moment may come when our perfect 10 candidate breaks up with us. It may arrive when our time or our budget is so constrained that we simply have to make tradeoffs.

But that moment is always a turning point. Things paradoxically get easier from there. A satisficing approach gives us more degrees of freedom and more nimbleness.

I am not advocating for settling, but rather for being realistic. We’ll often learn more, and faster, by taking a satisficing approach instead of an optimizing approach.

I talked with one hiring manager who hires every new person on a provisional basis and upgrades them to full-time once the fit is established. And there are companies who aim to keep their hiring process to a week.

Why not look for ways to engage talent in a test-and-learn way, in much the same way we now approach marketing?