Bob Sutton on Crappy People versus Crappy Systems

I recently pointed to Bob Sutton’s new blog as a good source of insight into the world of effective organizations.  One of his recent posts, Crappy People versus Crappy Systems, offers an excellent case in point. The entire post is well worth your time, but here is the essence:

 The worst part about focusing on keeping out crappy people, however, is that it reflects a belief system that “the people make the place.” The implication is that, once you hire great people and get rid of the bad ones, your work is pretty much done. Yet if you look at large scale studies in everything from automobile industry to the airline industry, or look at Diane Vaughn’s fantastic book on the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the well-crafted report written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board , the evidence is clear: The “rule of law crappy systems” trumps the “rule of crappy people.”

Sure, people matter a lot, but as my colleague Jeff Pfeffer puts it, some systems are so badly designed that when smart people with a great track record join them, it seems as if a “brain vacuum” is applied, and they turn incompetent. Jeff often jokes that this is what happens to many business school deans, and indeed, these jobs have so many competing and conflicting demands that they are often impossible to do well.

Bob Sutton: Crappy People versus Crappy Systems.

I’ve worked in a number of organizations that do an excellent job of hiring great people, including successful startups. Sutton’s post finally puts a finger on my central frustration in these organizations; they too often tolerate crappy systems that pull down the performance and potential of the great people they manage to attract.

I suspect this is partly a function of the wrong design emphasis. When you know in advance that your organizational systems must work regardless of your ability to attract the best and the brightest, you invest the time and energy to make those systems robust. If you go down the “hire the best” path, you give yourself license to under-invest in systems. Perhaps more harmfully, you don’t take the time to design the organizational systems that might actually amplify the quality and capabilities of a superior workforce.