Plus Minus People

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, skmurphy, Startups

“Plus Minus People” make a strong initial impression but once you start working with them (or you hire them) you realize that they have a negative impact on the team.

An old joke (or perhaps a variation on an old joke–which is still an old joke):

“..and then there was the man whose personality was so negative that whenever he left a party people would look around and ask ‘who just came in?'”

From the footnote 3 on page 133 of High Tech Ventures by Gordon Bell

“Negative Productivity is a principle that I claim is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Normal principles of productivity assume that workers create positive output. Brooks refined the concept of software productivity to express it in terms of the “mythical man month,” and in software engineering, it is understood that different programmers vary in their productivity by several orders of magnitude. According to the principal of negative productivity, it is possible for an individual to produce bad results that others must then redo; hence, someone who is very negatively productive can keep a whole team busy with damage control, preventing the team from producing any output whatsoever.”
Gordon Bell  in High Tech Ventures

Merging these two implies [ -(-1) = +1 for the mathematically disinclined ]

“Removing someone with negative productivity from a team without replacement is the same as adding a new team member.”
Gordon Bell  in High Tech Ventures

The challenge for a startup is four fold:

  1. Screen out folks with negative productivity in the interview process.
  2. Avoid screening out potential employees who have great strengths in addition to some obvious weaknesses.
  3. Attract, hire, and retain enough strong players from the start to complete your first product in a timely fashion.
  4. Fire anyone who made an initially strong impression but who is actually negatively impacting the performance of the team (more broadly: identify and eliminate sources of negative productivity).

This last category, the “Plus Minus People,” are only truly dangerous if you don’t have the ability to detect and acknowledge that you have made a mistake.

Joe Kraus has argued that it’s better to be completely conservative and avoid any “false positives” but my experience has shown that allowing some leeway with a contracting or probationary period to make a final assessment allows some ultimately strong contributors to also be recruited who may have made a negative impression on some members of the team. There is also a value in having folks with diverse backgrounds and perspectives on the team (Doug Hall states that leverage diversity is the second law of capitalist creativity in Jumpstart Your Business Brain, observing that “You exponentially multiply the power of stimuli when you seek the ideas, opinions, and judgments of people with diverse perspectives.”)

You are always better served to select a candidate who has made a strongly positive impression on most of your team over someone who has unanimous but lukewarm support. Tim Converse wrote a good post on “Hiring: false positive and negatives” that analyzed categories 2 and 4, noting that allowing for some number of 4’s allow you to also recruit some 2’s that broaden the diversity of your team and allow it to reach better solutions. In any event, you have to be prepared for errors in your hiring process and need to continue to evaluate employees and their contribution on an ongoing basis.

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