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Hazards of Being a Super-Chicken

Posted in Tech

Recently, I came across a Ted Talk regarding super-chickens. The idea of super-chickens seems like a great idea. In modern societies, the world pushes to have more growth, high competitive drive, and best performers. The ideal of meritocracy is discussed many times in the world of technology. Shouldn’t top companies be run by top employees?

Ms. Margaret Heffernan outlines a Purdue study conducted by William Mure, an evolutionary biologist. The study started with a flock of average producing chickens. The superflock was generated by selecting the highest productive chickens from the average flock to the test group. After each successive generation, the highest productive chickens were again selected from the average group and transferred to the superflock.

After six generations, the average producing flock were more productive than before. However, the test group, the superflock, pecked each other to death. After six generations, only three super-chickens remained. This experiment calls to attention employee selection, management, and evaluation. Specifically, suppression of overall productivity results in the success of super-performers depends upon the failure of others.

I think these types of experiments offer insight to better management of employees. Although the Ted Talk does not name any names, the recommendations are in clear conflict to generally accepted practices of annual reviews, ranking systems, and firing “underperformers.” Even GE, who popularized firing the “bottom” 10 percent annually, is starting to move away from this practice.

Ms. Margaret Heffernan also outlined another social experiment from MIT. Results show more successful groups have more women in the group. If we were to be more “scientific,” shouldn’t we trust research more than an opinionated manifesto by James Damore? Should we overlook or tolerate misbehavior of “high performing” managers or “super stars?” Other questions come to mind regarding this research compared to singular ideology, e.g. meritocracy. My intention is not to settle this discussion in the post, but these types of research should help us rethink common management practices.

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