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Hiring like a Jigsaw Puzzle

There are two basic approaches to hiring:

  • Hiring like a jigsaw puzzle, and
  • Hiring like an assembly line.

Hiring like an assembly line is more common. When you work on an assembly line you have very little variation in what you do. One particular task might be to put a bolt into a hole and then tighten the bolt. The holes are a standard size and you know the depth of the hole, so it’s obvious which bolt to use. You just select a bolt that’s the right size, and you slide it in.

Hiring like an assembly line works the same way. You have standard job definitions – maybe a few different kinds, but it’s a limited number. Your task in hiring is to find a person who fits a particular job definition, hire them into the company (put the bolt into the hole), and do so in a way that ensures they stay in the position for a few years (tighten the bolt).

The nice thing about hiring this way is that it’s simple. But what we tend to forget about assembly lines is that a lot of thought and planning goes into the design of a product to optimize it for production on an assembly line. Manufacturing process engineers spend their lives making things go smoothly, balancing the labor up and down the line, and defining each task in an optimum way. In contrast, we typically spend very little effort setting up job definitions. Most companies just borrow heavily from the definitions used in other companies.

Once the new workers are installed in their well-defined positions, you learn more about the people you hired. Not surprisingly, the people who share the same type of position are fundamentally different. If you’re lucky, their individual strengths and weaknesses will balance each other. But it’s more common when you hire using the assembly line method to have a bunch of people who share many of the same weaknesses and strengths. You’ll have holes in your organization in the weak areas, and some of the overlapping strengths will be unnecessary.

Hiring like a Jigsaw Puzzle
Let’s go back to that other method of hiring. When you solve a jigsaw puzzle, you usually start with some distinctive object that appears in the puzzle, and you put together that part of the puzzle first as a core from which to build the rest. You might also find the puzzle pieces with straight sides and assemble the edges of the puzzle. Then the search begins to expand the core of the puzzle. You look for individual pieces that have distinctive markings or colors, or you look for a specific shape. Gradually you assemble the puzzle, as each piece you fit into the core creates a different requirement for the next piece.

Now consider putting together an organization this same way. You start with a few core people; maybe they’re the founders of the organization you’re trying to staff, or maybe they’re really good people who’ve been assigned to be the foundation for the new organization. You might also identify some “edge” people to start with – customers and supporting departments who have to interact with the people in your organization.

Based on what you start with in the core and on the edges, you figure out the next piece of the puzzle that you’ll need. Just like with a jigsaw puzzle, you can build on the core in multiple directions at the same time, looking for multiple people who are needed to augment the skills of the core team in very specific ways. You can use a job description to help you, but it’s just a starting point, and each description will have to be tailored to suit the individual requirements for this specific piece of the organizational puzzle.

Once you find a person who fits the requirements for an individual puzzle piece, you bring the person into your organization, and the strengths and weaknesses of this new person help determine the next piece of the puzzle. For example, maybe you are looking for a few project leaders with specific experience in your industry. You find a fantastic project leader who has extraordinary project experience, but only minimal industry experience. You need a second project leader anyway, so now you’re going to look for someone who has more industry experience but who doesn’t necessarily need the same depth of project leadership.

Extraordinary people are seldom hired using the assembly line method because they don’t meet all of the detailed hiring criteria and so they get weeded out. These people have tremendous strengths, but most people who are very strong in one area have corresponding weaknesses in other areas, and these weaknesses eliminate them from consideration. The assembly line hiring method gives us more consistency in our people, but it also tends to give us people who are average in all respects but extraordinary in none.

The objective of the jigsaw puzzle approach to hiring is to build an organization of extraordinary individuals who can work together to exceed organizational goals. By tailoring our hiring to specific organizational needs and by taking into account the current people in the organization, we stand a better chance of hiring people who are outstanding in some important aspect of their skill set and experience. Hiring extraordinary people is the basis for an extraordinary organization.

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