Talent ID 2.0: Stop Measuring Performance, and Start Testing Temperament

skill-scanDo you have an eye for identifying talent?

Can you watch people perform, talk to them, and then choose the person who’s destined to succeed in the long run?

Most of us instinctively answer “yes,” because it feels like we do.

In fact, science shows us that we’re mostly flattering ourselves. Because the truth is, long-term success is extraordinarily difficult to predict. Interviews are notoriously unreliable. Sports drafts, in particular, are expensive casinos.

The problem is that a person’s progress ultimately depends on factors that are extraordinarily difficult to measure — stuff like character, emotions, discipline, motivation. How do they respond to failure? What’s their vision for themselves? Can they persevere in the toughest situations?

We call this “the soft stuff” but in fact it’s not soft at all — it’s the hardest, most vital stuff there is.

The real question is, how do you measure it?

I came across a great answer developed by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback before becoming a successful coach, has developed a simple way to measure the soft stuff of his quarterback and receiver prospects.

He plays catch with them.

That’s right — he plays catch, throwing a football back and forth. He does this at pro days, when prospective draftees try out for an audience of coaches and scouts. Every other NFL coach treats the event as a spectator sport, standing on the sidelines with clipboards and video cameras.  Harbaugh, on the other hand, uses it as an opportunity to engage.

Here’s the trick: with Harbaugh, it’s not an ordinary game of catch. Because after a few warmups, Harbaugh starts throwing harder, with more and more intensity. He makes the player run out for passes, making tough throws. He challenges the player, sees if they instinctively rise to the occasion. Some players back down, get uncomfortable. Others embrace it. From the Wall Street Journal:

Harbaugh first took a liking to [Colin] Kaepernick, who played in college at Nevada, when they played a supercharged game of catch at his pro day in Reno. Harbaugh threw hard; Kaepernick threw harder. Kaepernick, Harbaugh came to understand, had the drive he was looking for. Although he wasn’t considered a top prospect—San Francisco took him in the second round in 2011—Kaepernick has started in two straight NFC Championship games and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.

I love Harbaugh’s litmus test because it measures two things at once: interpersonal chemistry and competitiveness. It operates at the gut level, where the most important factors reside.

In short, this is not talent ID — it’s temperament ID.

It reminds me of a master teacher I researched at the Bolshoi Ballet, who tested new students by teaching them a difficult and strange new move that none of them had ever done before. The teacher wasn’t interested in how well they performed so much as whether they embraced the process. Did they rise to the challenge? Did they struggle well? Like Harbaugh’s test, it was a gut-level litmus test of temperament and character.

The next question: are there ways to apply this idea to other disciplines? What’s the business version of Harbaugh method? What’s the music version?

Do you know of any similar temperament-ID tests that might be worth sharing?

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