I’ve noticed a piece of advice repeated in many Agile blogs, articles, and books.

Seeing it makes me roll my eyes until it hurts. (Why I would hurt myself on purpose will be the subject of another post, on a blog reserved for psychotherapists.)

Even my very most favorite Agile book, “Scaling Lean & Agile Development” by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, has a section in there with this advice.

I saw it in Jim Highsmith’s new book, too, although by the time he’s done discussing it he does make a couple of good points. It’s an old piece of advice that pre-dates Agile.

What is this old chestnut? Here it is:

Hire the best.Hiring the Best

I mean, come on. Is this supposed to be a big lightbulb moment? Where do they find stuff like this, in the “Journal of the Totally Obvious?” Am I supposed to leap out of my chair, smack my forehead and exclaim “Eureka! All I have to do is hire the best! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Is this really good advice? Is it actually possible, or necessary in an Agile world? Is this sensible, if trite, piece of advice useful at all? Talk amongst yourselves while I blather on for a bit.

The problem with “Hire the Best” as an operational principle is that:

a) it immediately excludes most of us, and
b) it’s extremely difficult to do.

What’s the best? The top 5%? 10%? Certainly no more than 20%.

So what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to do? Are things hopeless for us? Should 80% of companies worldwide just give up and shut down because the top 20% of people are taken? What about big companies and the Law of Large Numbers? Can you really hire only the best when you’re hiring 10,000 or 20,000 people?

Something that makes much more sense to me, and which has much more power, is this idea:

Hire well, and develop people.

Check it out! Everybody can do this. “Develop People” is one of the two pillars of Lean, while “Hire the Best” is not. So far, those Lean folks have been right about pretty much everything, so why not this, too? Why would I need to develop people if I only hired the best? Why not save the money so I can pour it into my “Hire the Best” employment initiative?

The Agile Principles say something like […find motivated people and trust them…], and I believe in Agile. So I cannot find in the bedrock of either of my professional beacons, Lean and Agile, any indication that I should “Hire the Best”.

My common sense and experience tell me that it is incredibly hard to actually hire the best, and I like that it might not be absolutely necessary for success. How cool would it be to hire the ‘pretty good’ and then kick the butt of some company that thought it was hiring the best? Is that possible? Yes.

“Hire the Best” is really hard to do.

I’ve worked as a full time hiring manager at more than a dozen companies, all of which thought they hired the best and only one of which actually did. That company really worked hard at hiring the best. At that company, one rule of the hiring thumb was that you only hired people onto your team who would immediately place in the upper 50th percentile.

In other words, when you were on an interviewing team in that company, you were expected to vote to hire somebody who was better than half the people on your team. You think that’s easy? You think that isn’t scary? Try it sometime.

What I’m really really really interested in is something that can take my average team (and let’s face it, Ms. Wishful Hiring Manager, it is overwhelmingly likely that our team is average, for some value of average) and make it better or improve its ability to deliver value to my customers. That’s worth some effort to achieve because it is worth money to my business. If I believe in “The Art of the Possible” then I like this better, because it’s a lot more possible than simply hiring the best.

Anybody can embark on a long, expensive and likely unachievable quest to only hire the best, but if Agile were really valuable,  it would help me to take my team of competent professionals and make them significantly more effective than they were. It might even make them more effective than a gaggle of “the best” somewhere else.

The Agile Principles talk about motivated people, but they don’t actually mention “the best”.  I view this as a good thing because I strongly believe that the best teams are not built from a homogeneous mix of the smartest, fastest, bestest people.

Teams work best when they are diverse and when the power of the team can be unleashed by empowerment and self-organization. I also know from bitter experience how hard, and frankly scary, it can be to really hire the best. (Sorry if I harp on that, but I have scars…)

What I want is what I think both Lean and Agile offer to me as a businessperson. They offer me a way to take solid professionals and then ignite their passion and professionalism within a framework of continuous learning in a way that allows them each to contribute to the fullest extent possible.

That’s something that make Lean and Agile worthwhile to me, and not some lazy idea about hiring the very best (somehow) and then automatically winning.

About the Author: Alan Atlas is a Soul Musician, Certified Scrum Trainer, and Agile Coach at Rally Software Development. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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