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Innovate on Demand, Episode 11: Predictive Hiring

The current hiring process in the public service uses specific keywords to map out education, skills and experience onto a defined list of essential and merit criteria. On this episode of Innovate on Demand, Free Agent Étienne Laliberté discusses the idea of assessing applicants against a set of behavioural characteristics, a practice known as "predictive hiring." Listen now.

Duration: 50:18
Date: May 11, 2020

Transcript

Todd 
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Valeria 
I'm Valeria Sosa.

Étienne
And I'm Étienne Laliberté.

Todd 
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

How do you hire the right person for the job? In our federal public service, the conventional method demands that applicants use a rigid format, using specific keywords to map their education, skills and experience onto a defined list of essential and merit criteria. Canada's Free Agents went another way, assessing applicants against a set of behavioural characteristics, to great success. Our guest this episode says that whatever process we try to implement, in the end, it all comes down to first impressions.

Natalie
Welcome, Étienne.
Before joining the public service, you worked in the private sector for a start-up during the peak of the Internet bubble. That's a really interesting thing. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what kind of innovation might have been going on at that time?

Étienne
Absolutely. Yeah, those were crazy days. It was 2000 when I joined the company. The company itself used to be a business that was in the CD-ROM industry at the time. But the Internet was picking up steam and the company had shifted its activity towards building websites.

These were still relatively early days for the Internet. And what this company was producing were websites that allowed the owners to edit the content without any HTML knowledge. Nowadays, we take it for granted. We have platforms such as Blogger or WordPress that everyone uses, so we're familiar with the WYSIWYG tools. Back in 2000, my teams were coding the WYSIWYG tools that allowed people to edit. It was a lot of work, but it was pioneering work.

One of the most exciting projects that I worked on was actually the first project that I ever managed. It was a soccer portal back in 2000. It was the year of the Euro 2000.

The soccer portal itself was in two languages: English and Spanish. We had our team spread out over four different continents. It was a really exciting time. I remember in the month of July or August 2000, an article coming out in an Internet magazine or publication of the day that did the ranking of the most-visited websites that summer; and our portal was number 54 in the entire world, which for June 2000 was crazy.

Then there were other types of innovation projects that were starting to pop up. One that we were all very eager to work on was a deal with the Phoenix Suns, the basketball team.

The idea of the team owners was to provide handheld devices to the crowd in the arena so they could interact during the game with surveys on the screens or maybe even order food from their seats. There were big partners. I think Lucent technology was involved. They were providing the devices. Our company was developing the app for the interface for the service.

Natalie
I bet you called it an "application" back then.

Étienne 
I can't remember what we called it. But actually, what I like about that story is that nowadays, when we think about giving a handheld device to 20,000 people in an arena so that they can interact and people handing back their device at the end of the game, it makes no sense!

[laughter]

But there was something about the idea that was visionary. It was the understanding that we're coming close to the day where everyone will have a small computer in their hands. And they will be able to interact in real time and order food that will come to their seat, wherever they are.

Natalie
Turns out the future is here.

Étienne
Those were fun days. Yeah.

Valeria
Can I ask you, what were you trained in?

Étienne
Project management. I have a master's degree in project management.

Natalie
So that was in 2000. You actually joined the federal public service in 2003. What would that transition have looked like for you, as far as innovation goes?

Étienne
It was very smooth in the sense that there was not much challenge. At the same time, I was a bit dumbfounded by what I saw in the public service. My first job in the public service was for the Translation Bureau. They had a unit called Techno Linguistic Services, which basically leveraged technology to improve translation. And they were developing websites.

They had developed a little system through a database that allowed simultaneous publishing of French and English content to the government website. I It was well thought-out, actually. So because of my web development background, I got there thinking that this would be a fun challenge. But what I discovered is that the teams were about a third of the size of the team that I used to manage. The budgets [were small]. The largest project I ever managed over there was 1/25th the size of my largest project in the private sector. And the technology was, for the most part, about five years behind what the private sector was using.

So, that was the transition. Though, again, if I [use] an innovation lens, there were some cool projects happening at the time. One that I remember got me really curious and excited, was—

At the time, the Auditor General had just audited Job Bank, the job website... And the quality of the translation of the job posters was absolutely terrible. Terrible! It was an embarrassment. Our unit was tasked with improving the quality of the translation.

The assumption going in was that technology was going to resolve all the problems. I had very qualified people on my team, all techno linguists, who were very skilled at automatic translation software. So we crafted an experiment to [test] a few hypotheses and what we quickly discovered was just by running the original job descriptions [through a spelling and grammar checker] in a word [processor] like Microsoft Word, [we] improved the quality of the translation by about 65%. So just fixing the mistakes and the grammar and spelling, solved 65% of the problem—

Valeria 
Oh, you mean quality control!

Étienne
And we didn't need to buy or develop any technology. Just Word could do it. The default dictionary could do it.
Then another thing we looked into was we applied the rules of plain language to the original text. Again, we tested nine or ten basic plain-language rules and measured the impact that each rule had on the quality of translation. There were two rules that also created a 20% improvement in the quality of translation. Those rules were: use short sentences and use the active voice. So, subject, verb, compliment. Don't say, "The apple was eaten by Todd." Say, "Todd ate the apple" and the translation will be much better quality.

Again, we didn't develop anything and yet there was an instant improvement of about 85% in the quality of translation. Every additional rule that we implemented resulted in a one or two percent improvement. So there was really interesting work going on.

Natalie 
It sounds like you have a long-standing relationship with data and testing.

Shortly after you joined the public service, you stepped into the HR [human resources] world. This is very much where my personal area of interest lies, so I'm very curious to know if there was any innovation going on in that sphere, back in those days.

Étienne 
I stepped into HR by accident. I was working for an ADM [assistant deputy minister] at the Public Service Human Resource Management Agency of Canada.

Natalie 
That is what OCHRO [Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer] was, I believe.

ETIENNE 
OCHRO, yeah, but at the time, it was a newly created separate agency. They were working on the Public Service Modernization Act and the ADM was tasked with implementing the Public Service Employment Act. My role on the team was to build capacity for managers to do staffing under the new legislation.>

I did that for almost a year, which was an amazing experience. Two weeks, literally, after the implementation of the PSEA, I landed on the west coast in Vancouver, actually doing staffing—so now living with the consequences of my actions!

[laughter]

So working at Fisheries and Oceans, [in] their law enforcement branch. Initially, the mandate was very specific: it was to resolve a long-standing staffing issue that had been present for about seven years. But my mandate quickly increased beyond that. And before I knew it, I was looking at all the aspects of people management—employee engagement, performance, management, recruitment, [you] name it. I did that for five years. It was an amazing experience.

Now to the question: was that innovative? Well, the Public Service Employment Act, I thought, was a fantastic little piece of legislation. I think it's really well written. The people who worked on this were smart people. I remember, until 2009 or 2010, I was amazed by how the people who wrote the Act were able to anticipate years in advance problems that might happen. The Act really took care of these problems before they happened. There were some great ideas happening there.

As far as my practical application of the Public Service Employment Act, or across government, I cannot say there was anything innovative happening. The one benefit that I had was I had never done staffing before and therefore I had no preconceived ideas of how it should be done. The one thing I knew is I wanted to treat employees the way I would like to be treated as an applicant on a job process. That influenced much of what I did.

What I did when I approached staffing and people management, I simplified everything that I could. I got rid of processing requirements that were not needed. For example, when people would apply on my process, no resume was required. And I made it explicit on the poster: don't send in a resume, don't send a cover letter. The Act didn't mandate it. There was no policy requirement for it, so I didn't need it. I simplified all the processes where I could.

The rest was just having a very user-centric approach to everything and always putting myself in the shoes of the candidates, the applicants, and try to look at what was happening from their perspective. Being very responsive to communication. No question left unanswered for more than 24 hours. It was about getting rid of this idea of the "black box" that generates mistrust in the system and what's going on. Being as transparent as possible. Every piece of information that I could anticipate, that I knew, I would share openly with the people.
I did that in all the aspects of my job. This will be a topic for another podcast one day, but the Public Service Employee Survey really showed that it made a huge difference on employee morale. That being said, I wouldn't say that there was anything really innovative about what I was doing.

Valeria 
Can I ask you a question? So, no CV, no cover letter? Would they just ask a series of questions and [candidates] would just respond?

Étienne
It was basically, "Describe in your own words how you meet the merit [criteria]."

Valeria
Were these people coming in from the outside or were they were internal?

Étienne 
I managed different types of processes. Most of my energy was focused on internal staffing for fishery officers, which is a very clearly defined line of work. What this turned into was that employees were able to develop a portfolio that they maintain over time.

They didn't have to restart applications from scratch, every time. They would just keep building the same portfolio over time, which the first time you build it, is very demanding. It's a big investment. We're talking two, three days of work, perhaps. After that, it's maybe 15 minutes of work in a week. You finish a project, you add a line in your portfolio and you're ready for the next process that comes along. The employees really appreciated that.

Natalie
I do, too. I want that.

[laughter]

So you spent a big part of the last year researching best practices and wrapping up a lot of this work that you've done in HR, to something different. What are some of the lessons learned in innovative practices and staffing recruitment? What did you discover?

Étienne 
I was working for a separate agency that was completely reviewing their 20-year-old staffing system. I was hired to join the small team, eight people. Really, really qualified people. Smart people. I was the only outsider on the team, the only person who was not from that agency. My supervisor had the wisdom or the luck to assign me to [the task of] looking outside the organization [to] identify the best practices, lessons learned [and] innovative practices in the area of staffing and recruitment.

I did that for the better part of last summer, 2018. I interviewed about 100 people, mostly from the federal public service, including not only the core administration, but Crown corporations and separate employers. I also ventured beyond that. I met with a few people from provincial governments, municipal administration and [the] private sector.

They were semi-structured interviews. I outlined what I was looking for, I but gave the interviewee complete freedom in taking the conversation where they wanted. And I [would go] back and try to make sense of the results and then uncover the patterns that were emerging. Again, not a lot of innovation going on in the HR world.

What I came across instead were a handful of what I call "positive deviants"—a few bold thinkers that are taking a new approach to old problems. And in looking at the demographics of this little group of bold thinkers—

Out of over 100 people that I interviewed, no more than ten would fit into that category. Actually, some of those ten worked together in little clusters. Then, when they split up after three years of working together, they [went] to different organizations, [where] they colonized these other organizations. But many of them had worked together previously.

So [when I asked] them about their background, it was also a bit striking to note that half of them didn't come from an HR background. They were either business consultants or organization development specialists. I remember one was a recruiter, so not your typical HR person. You can see how her background as a recruiter really shaped how she was as an HR executive. She was strongly focused on the needs of the applicants, the candidates, the new employees. That was her mindset, which differs slightly from what we see in HR. That was a common pattern.

While I was asked to uncover the best practices and lessons learned, I finished my written report by warning people against focusing too much on the best practices. I think best practices can have a negative impact. People tend to advocate thinking, "Oh, we're just going to copy that practice without putting thought into it." In fact, the best practice might have worked for an organization because it made sense in that context. Maybe it was a blend of a few different best practices that made the whole work.

I also warn people against fads and big shiny objects and jumping to quick solutions, quick fixes. Ultimately, I personally was more interested in the thinking that went behind those best practices than the best practice itself. Perhaps I can give one example. One of the big problems that HR folks working in staffing have to deal with is whether to pool or not to pool.

[laughter]

And [creating a] pool is often [thought of as] the solution to most problems. HR loves pools, but when you talk to applicants, applicants hate pools and managers are not sold on the idea either. They don't actually care whether the person they're hiring comes from a pool or not. All they care about is having qualified people really fast.

I contrasted the practices of two organizations, two federal Crown corporations, and they both looked at the problems of the pool and observed the same things, yet came to different solutions. In one organization, the director of HR looked at the numbers and he said, Look, I know that out of any pool that I have, about 30% of the people in the pool get appointed. That means 70% of the people in the pool never get a call. So odds are, statistically, if you are in a pool, you will not get a job. Which is just ridiculous. It makes no sense when you think of it.

Then he looked beyond that because he realized that 70% of people that will never get a call now lose faith in HR. It erodes their trust in management and it hurts the employer's brand. So he looked at the numbers and he figured, let's say that I'm creating a pool of 100 people: 30 people will get a job, 70 will not. To get to that pool of 100 people, I know from our past numbers that I have administered at least 300 interviews. To get 300 people to interviews, I probably look at 3000 resumes. He said, If I compile all the effort, the time, energy and dollars that go into this, it makes no business sense. All this work to hire 30 people, and alienate 70, makes no business sense. He said, as director of HR, I can come up with 12 different ways of hiring the 30 people you need without alienating anyone. So that organization moved away from pools.

Then another organization took a different approach. They're everywhere in Canada; they have offices in the smallest communities. What they did is they started creating a lot of pools because that organization has a good capacity when it comes to analytics, especially web analytics. They're at a point where they can even tell, if I advertise a job on LinkedIn in this geographic market, I can reasonably expect to have 100 applicants in a seven-day period [and] 50% of the applicants will probably be qualified for the work. Therefore, if I'm only anticipating 50 jobs in this market is this area in the next two, three months, I should only post the job for seven days on LinkedIn in that market. And I will probably just get enough people in the pool to meet my needs for the next two, three months.

What happens is that everyone in the pool gets a phone call, everyone gets a job offer. If the people turn down a job offer a few times, they are told, We're going to remove you from the pool. But don't worry, we'll run another pool in the future, there's always a need for these types of jobs. And so they took a completely different approach. But both employers observed the same problem at the origin is that pools, the way they are done right now, they don't work, everyone hates them. One decided to move away from it. The other has decided to embrace it in a  different way while meeting some conditions.
When I share that practice with people, typically the reaction I get is that either people dislike the idea or they don't want to put all the effort that goes into making pools work; [they think] ensuring that everyone will get a job offer and leveraging the analytics is too much work. They're actually not interested in changing the way they do things. So many of the HR processes are designed for HR's own convenience, in fact, rather than to serve the managers.

Valeria 
I could not agree with you more.
In that first group that moved away from the pool method, do you know what direction they went in?

Étienne
Yes, they went towards headhunting, targeted recruitment. That sort of thing.

Natalie
It's very interesting, I stumbled across some of your results in your findings from this on YouTube, which actually surprised me. And then didn't surprise me, because I've known you for some time.
Within that project, that's a really new and different way of sharing this information across the public service. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How did you come to do that? How did you get it to stick? How did you land that?

Étienne
I like to think that I'm probably one of the first bloggers in the public service. I started blogging about my work back in 2005. And by 2006, 2007, I was an active blogger, publishing weekly. So it was something that I was familiar with.

When I was mandated with this project, for that separate employer to look into best practices and lessons learned in staffing and recruitment, I knew from the get-go that I would have to produce a report by the end of my work. I also know that almost no one today reads reports in their entirety.

The thought of spending a month or two writing a report that no one would read didn't sit well with me. I knew that in order for the findings to stick, I needed to package them in a very, very dense way: quick, something that you can listen to, in a couple of minute—actually listen to or watch, rather than read, like a podcast. And initially, this was my idea. However, there's another person that I know, a free agent that has a podcast that has such high production value, that I thought I'm never going to be able to compete with Todd Lyons!

[laughter]

Todd
I'm blushing.

[laughter]

Étienne
But I saw an opportunity to carve out my own niche as well. It was actually in a discussion on a Friday afternoon with another free agent that I realized, well, video blog is just one medium away from a podcast. And actually, the video blog has a few added advantages. For example, I can resort to multiple ways to convey a message: visual, auditory, people see my body language. So from that moment on, I was pretty set on creating the video blog, I just had to work out the format. I knew that I was probably looking at two-minute vignettes: take one idea and expand on it. Very specific, very targeted.

Initially, when I shared the idea with my supervisors, they were on board, but they knew we would have to clear a few things with communications and others, and manage expectations. So we did that. Then something unexpected happen. I was working on the first series of vignettes. I had recorded about seven and I had my launch strategy planned out.

The plan was that in early December 2018, I was going to publish an initial seven vignettes on a Monday morning. Then for the following two weeks, every day, twice a day, I would publish another vignette. That was the plan. I told my supervisor, This is coming. December 1 I'll be launching.

The very morning that I was supposed to launch, at 6:30 am, I got an email from my supervisor telling me, Don't publish anything. Senior management wants to review every video. That was after three months of giving the heads up that I was—

I obviously respected the request. But there was something a little particular about the email in the sense that it was "senior management." It was kind of vague. So when I ran into my supervisor that day at the office I just asked, Who exactly needs to see this? Can I get in touch with them personally? I will actually [contact] them offline. I will not go through the formal channels. So the supervisor told me who I had to run the idea by and it was Dave Conabree. If you're on Twitter, Dave Conabree is very active on Twitter. Every day, he shares his reading at lunchtime; he's an interesting person to follow.

Dave Conabree is a forward-thinking person and he has zero patience for bureaucracy. It's part of the pleasure of working for him is that one of his missions in life is to get rid of stupid bureaucracy. When I found out that Dave had to veto or approve the idea, I just tweeted him. I said, Dave, I've recorded seven videos. I'm planning this video blog. I'm aiming to launch next Monday (so I was delaying my launch plans by a week). Have a look at the first few. I don't name the organization. I don't name any employer that I interview. I'm doing this as a Free Agent. I'll be using my personal email as a Free Agent to publish it. My Talent Managers within the Free Agent [program] have already approved the idea. Neil Bouwer, who's kind of the champion of the Free Agent program, is already talking to people that this video blog is coming out, so no need to worry there.

By the end of that evening, I think eight o'clock that night, I get the tweet back from Dave Conabree. It says, "Étienne, I looked at the first three videos. Love it. I have no objection. Glad to have you on the team." It was that simple.

Valeria 
That's amazing. Much better than a briefing note.

Étienne
Much better than a briefing note, but the lesson learned there is that video blogs have existed since 2005, I think, so the video blog is nothing new. But it was perhaps the first one in the public service. It was a novel idea in that sense and there's no demonstrated value yet, because it's the first. I think to some extent, I had to convince people that, yes, there is a value in conveying a message in this format. The proof is now the video blog has gotten almost 9000 views.

Natalie
It was also tweeted by the head of the Public Service Commission as something really interesting that all people involved in staffing should be looking at. That is definitely a barometer for success.

Étienne
This video blog was produced nights and weekends. I bought $200 of equipment to do it in my living room because I knew that was the only way it was going to get done. Part of the motivation for my doing it is that I am after a certain type of reaction. I hope to make an impact. I knew the feeling that I was after. But until you start getting the emails back and the feedback, you don't know if your intuition is correct or not.

I launched the video blog on a Monday morning around eight o'clock. I had worked 22 hours straight on editing the vignettes. I had never published anything on YouTube before, so everything was a learning experience. Everything took twice the amount of time that I had anticipated. By eight o'clock Monday morning, December 17, I sent an email out: the video blog is now available. And 12 hours later, by eight o'clock that evening, Patrick Borbey sends me an email saying, "Étienne, I'm on the ninth episode." So he had already watched almost half of them on the first day and—

Valeria 
He was binge watching!

Étienne
He was binge watching, yeah. I could picture him in his living room.

Natalie
Most people binge watch Game of Thrones.

[laughter]

Étienne
The feedback coming from the President of the Public Service Commission was very encouraging. And I said, Well, if I'm getting his attention and if he wants to support the initiative and talk about it, I'm on the right track. So I kept pushing for it.

That being said, I had really high expectations of how many views it might get. The result is way, way, way below my initial expectations. I had sent it to almost every person who works in staffing and recruitment in the public service. Looking at the numbers, I can tell you that less than 300 people in the entire public service have watched the entire series. Less than 300. The most-viewed video has been seen about 1,300 times, which is the first one.

When I look at the stats, I see, with every video, there's fewer people that look at the videos, except for two videos, or three actually, which is a bit indicative of where the interest is gained back. The two videos that got slightly more views than they should were about whether to pool or not—the topic I was discussing earlier. The other was advertised versus non-advertised, which to me is an indication that people are still very much thinking within the constraints of the system, rather [than] thinking about bold solutions beyond those constraints.

Natalie
It's very interesting. It all leads into something which we like to affectionately call Moneyball, which I believe is your current work right now. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Étienne
Yes, Project Moneyball. Project Moneyball came about while I was doing those 100 interviews last year. There was a question that I systematically asked every interviewee. I asked them, What is on your radar right now? What are you paying attention to that you know that if you don't start doing very soon, five years from now, you will no longer be competitive as an employer? Three people—three of the bold thinkers, actually—mentioned quality of hire, how to define it and how to measure it, and its natural successor: predictive hiring.

Because the idea was mentioned by these three bold thinkers and no one else, it struck a chord with me. I paid attention to it. In the end, it only got one sentence in my video blog and one line in the written report, but it was always in the back of my mind.

Then one day, I was reading the book, Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, who was the lead recruiter at Google. He still is, I think. When I stumbled across chapter five of the book, I was blown away. I said, This is what I want to do. Chapter five talks about predictive hiring and all the things Google has tried over the years to improve their hiring methods.

There's a mention in the chapter about Moneyball, the book and the movie. I had seen Moneyball, so I went back to it. Now I was re-watching the movie with a different lens. It struck me how every scene where you see the baseball scouts talking about which baseball player they should be hiring, reminded me of how staffing is done in the public service; in the sense that it's just gut feeling, based on nothing. What predictive hiring wants to do is look at data, look at empirical evidence to base hiring decisions. Actually, look at past trends and what the evidence says about the relationship between qualifications or skills and what makes great performance, to better focus the energy and hire the people that do the type of things that lead to great performance.

For example, in Moneyball, one of the things that they look at is, despite the fact that batting average is easy to measure and has been tracked for decades, maybe 100 years, batting average is no indicator, no predictor, of a win for a team. The best predictor of a win for a team is players who walk to base.

That's how the Oakland A's were initially able to assemble a team of players who were just really skilled at walking to base. That doesn't mean that they are good ballplayers. That doesn't mean that they hit home runs. It doesn't mean that they run fast. Ultimately, they walk to base and that creates points for the team and points create wins and wins create championships.

That will be one of the first challenges with Moneyball for the public service: it will be how to define what's a win in the public service, for the organization, for the business unit, for the team, [and] for the individual. That will be the first challenge. I wouldn't even know where to start with that. For some types of jobs, for some lines of business, there might be indicators [or] metrics that are useful.

For example, if you look at someone who's working in a call centre, there's an easy way to determine if they're effective at what they do. You look at the number of calls they take and the satisfaction of the callers. Those two metrics are pretty objective. That really represents good service. Now the only question you need to answer is what are the skills that lead to these two things.

There's a lot of literature in industrial psychology publications about that. Google has shared much of their findings. They haven't shared the entire recipe, but they have at least shared some of the ingredients. Then there has been a bit of research done in the public service as well about that, looking at the future skills of work and those that transcend jobs and time. I already have something to start working from, but now it's about building a project around it. The entire project will be composed of small experiments, most likely.

Valeria 
Okay, so you're still at the beginning stages.

Étienne
I'm at the very beginning. So it's the unknown. It's one of the beauties of the project. I think this is as close as I'll ever work to true innovation. The challenge is that I have almost nothing to base the work on. The beauty is that any discovery I make is something more than we know now than we knew before. There's almost no way to fail at it. The worst is that I test a number of hypotheses and none of the hypotheses are demonstrated. That alone would be a finding in itself.

Valeria
Yeah. Okay, so I have quite a few questions here. I recently saw this video from Google, talking about how they're trying to remove bias from their recruitment process. I was actually disappointed because it looked like the direction that they were going [in] was more of the public service direction for recruiting.  It was that more detached system, really staying within that objective, personality-less, humourless way to interview candidates.

I could see their reasoning for the bias portion; how it works. But having been in the public service for so long and seeing the recruitment process of the public service, all I kept on going to is that, Oh, my God, that's such a shame. There's all these negative aspects to that process because you're removing the ability to assess somebody as a human being.

When I think back to when I was working in the private sector with small businesses, I worked for a period doing recruitment and training and things like that. I remember at one point, thinking to myself, I know within a minute whether I'm going to hire somebody. I'm talking to them and I know right away or I know that I'm not going to hire them. It takes a lot for that to change. Is that me being biased? Or is that part of being able to assess somebody's work ethic, personality, [and] soft skills?

There was one thing that we used to talk about a lot, which was always hire for personality and train for skill. Because if you have the right attitude and the right personality you can pretty much train them to do anything and they will be a success. Leading me to Beyond 2020; are you familiar with that? The new public service renewal initiative. They're looking at mindsets and behaviours and how to change mindsets and behaviours in the public service. I guess I'm asking you: what role do you see that playing in what you're doing?

Étienne 
The one mindset and behaviour that we need to change in staffing in the public service is to remove gut-feeling decisions and resort to evidence. If I can contrast the two examples that you gave: your experience in the private sector and knowing that within the first minute whether you're going to hire this person or not versus what Google is doing is actually one of the most documented cases of bias. It is demonstrated that hiring decisions are made in the first four minutes and the rest of the 56 minutes of the one-hour interview are spent convincing yourself to confirm the decision you've already made.

Valeria
I never regretted any of my decisions, though. Just FYI.

Étienne
But this is precisely why Google is taking a different approach. They are depersonalizing the [process]. They're formalizing the way information is captured. Hiring managers are not even interviewing the people that they're selecting. That's also the way I used to do it on the west coast. At Fisheries, the hiring manager was not part of the assessment.

Valeria
Are we saying that's a good thing?

Étienne
I think for collecting the information, the evidence, I think it's a good thing. Then you let the manager make his own decision with the information you present. But the information that is collected is collected in an objective way. There's no bias.

If I decide that you would be a good employee or not, has no bearing on me, because I'm not going to be supervising you. I'm really focused on what I need to identify, uncover, from the interview, the merit criteria and then I will produce a recommendation to the manager, but the manager retains the final authority over the hire.

Natalie
That's really interesting. I think what you just said, Val, about never having regretted a hire that you made [is interesting]. But the question I would ask you is: how would you know? Because you have no way of knowing how the people you didn't hire might have performed. I think that's a little bit about what predictive hiring is; it's finding out the false negatives and the false positives around that.

So what are those characteristics that you base your gut feeling on? Or what are those criteria that you base that gut feeling on? If you can actually turn that into evidence-based [decision-making], then maybe that's a game changer and helps you change that mindset or that behaviour. Not you personally, [but in general].

Valeria
As long as we have a metric for that lens. Do you know what I mean? Because right now, what we've been using up until now removes that lens completely.

Étienne
Again, there's one little step that we need to take with predictive hiring that is a bit counter-intuitive or goes against the way we've done staffing traditionally: you need to start with the end in mind. You need to be clear about what makes great performance. Once you identify that, then you work your way back. It's not the other way around. It's not looking for some qualifications without knowing if they lead to performance or not.

Valeria
I think that's part of the problem because we haven't been able to quantify, and we haven't been able to really define, what a productive and effective mindset is that makes an employee successful. We just ignore that assessment portion.

Étienne
There's a vignette that I produced on the video blog. I think it's number 19, one of the last ones. It's about using data and changing mindsets, and bringing that evidence-based decision-making into staffing and recruitment and HR as a whole. There's a big shift we must make.

Valeria
What useful lessons would you have to share with the public service "intrapreneurs," or innovators, in all your learnings and all your experiences?

Étienne
For intrapreneurs, one thing that I can think of is: try to spot the opportunities. Train yourself to spot the opportunities. What makes a great opportunity for an innovative idea to implement [is it] must address a real business problem. Some people have wonderful ideas, but they don't really address a problem that is pressing for hiring managers. That would probably be the first thing to do.

In selling an innovative idea to a manager or an organization, it's not always easy, obviously. If I put myself in the shoes of a manager, there is a very simple explanation why they're not going to be sold on the idea immediately—especially if they need to take much of the risk that would come along with a failure, without getting much of the benefit. You need to find a balance between the two.

It's actually how I negotiated my video blog. Ultimately, I took all the burden on myself. If I fail, if it meets with  a backlash, it's all on me. You, my supervisor, my managers, are not named anywhere. You're not part of this. However, if I succeed, I get all the credit—100% of it. So the mitigating measure was designed purposefully in that sense.

I can't imagine myself going to a manager and saying, I've got this great idea. I need your money to do this project. If it fails, it's all on you. If it succeeds, I'm going to take the glory. No managers will sign up for that. So this is something that you need to balance and every situation will be unique.

Another thought for intrapreneurs: looking at the literature for entrepreneurship and start-ups, one of the things that makes an entrepreneur successful is their willingness to "kill their darlings." They start with a great idea. They prototype it. They start testing it and release the product on the market. There are a few early adopters and they provide feedback and if they like it and the product catches on in popularity, the second wave of customers that come in might have different expectations for what would be a good product. The entrepreneur must make a decision. Do I change my original idea to meet a bigger demand in the market and have a successful business? Or do I stick to my original idea at all costs and just focus on that little niche market that I identified earlier? I have observed some initiatives, some great ideas in the public service and I can see a similar challenge: the reluctance sometimes to evolve the idea when they should. Perhaps it's part of the reason why we're not so good at scaling, because we don't evolve the original ideas to meet larger demand.

Another thought that I have for intrapreneurs: there's a gap between [whether] a product or a service is needed and where we are certain enough that it will be risk free or that it will succeed. It boils down to risk. With predictive hiring, we don't need it immediately. I have limited thoughts or ideas about how I'm going to approach this because it's unproven. I know for sure that if we don't start working on it now, in five years, ten years from now, it will be too late. In five years, ten years, we will be able to just copy what others have done. But we need to start working on it right now. How can we reconcile the timing of when the idea is needed and the certainty about its success?

Lastly, there's some literature that talks about why some companies have developed a culture of innovation. Why do they have a track record of releasing innovative products? The literature points to a number of factors, but one of those factors is that the organizations where the emphasis is put on the individual rather than the organization, tend to be more innovative, versus organizations where the institution trumps the individuality of its members. Perhaps I'm looking at the public service, but it's clear, in my opinion, that we don't value the individuality of the people or the small teams or the smaller business units—

Valeria
Less Kool-Aid.

Étienne
Yeah. Perhaps that's one thing that we can start improving: giving people a bit more freedom to show their individuality, bring their ideas to the table, even if it goes a bit against the grain of what else is happening in the organization. The good news is that, in my opinion, when it comes to innovation in the public service, the bar is so low—

[laughter]

In a way, it's discouraging. But you can also turn this into an empowering idea. The bar is really low, which means that even the smallest ideas can make an impact.

Valeria
I just want to probe that a little bit. Why do you say the bar is so low?

Étienne
I have a basis of comparison.

[laughter]

Going back to where we began at the start of this podcast, in the private sector, they have a slightly different approach. That being said, there are some really smart people in the public service. I'm not talking about that. [There are] some really bright ideas, but it's about the incentives to do something with these ideas and weighing the risk.

Valeria
Thank you. Thank you very much, Étienne. Thank you for joining us today. This has been very enlightening. Any final thoughts beyond your wonderful, insightful advice?

Étienne
Risk it all.

Todd 
Short and sweet. I love it.

Valeria
Done! All right. Thank you.

Todd 
You've been listening to Innovate On Demand, brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service. Our music is by Grapes. I'm Todd Lyons, producer of this series. Thank you for listening.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach
Natural Resources Canada

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Étienne Laliberté
Free Agent
Canada School of Public Service

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