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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Sexual selection

What happens in the interview room accelerates industry evolution

I am often asked if I know someone suitable for job x or job y in the life sciences industry and usually the job description is attached to the email. Looking through some recent roles, I was struck by the trend to tightly specify past work experience that is 'essential' or 'strongly preferred'. Clearly, recent role history is being used as a shorthand to winnow down applicants. It reminded me of sticklebacks and if that seems a little cryptic then stay with me for a few minutes while I work through the theory and then get back to the practical implications.

Evolutionary scientists talk a lot about natural selection, when a certain trait (a long neck, pale skin) is favoured by the natural environment (tall trees, weak sunlight). Evolution by natural selection was the mechanism first discussed by Darwin in On the Origin of Species. As regular readers will know, much of my work concerns itself with how natural selection by the business environment explains and predicts the emergence of new business models in the life sciences industry. However, natural selection was not the only method of evolution that Darwin identified.

Peacocks' tails and frogs' deep croaks
In his later work, he identified sexual selection as a complementary mechanism. The two differ in what leads to reproductive success. In natural selection, a trait (and therefore its genes) are reproduced when it fits better with the environment, as with a giraffe's neck or my pale skin. In sexual selection, however, reproductive success arises from the preference of a sexual partner for a given trait. This refinement of evolutionary theory helps elucidate some things that are not fully explained by natural selection alone. Commonly cited examples include features that seem to have no advantage in terms of natural selection, such as peacocks' tails and frogs' deep croaks. A more scientifically interesting and business relevant example, however, is that sexual selection explains rapid speciation. This is where my sticklebacks come in, since sexual selection helps explain how one species of stickleback speciates into multiple forms.

Moving into the interview room
What does this have to do with the interview room? Well, recruiting new people is one of the ways that firms acquire new organisational routines. These are the organisational equivalent of genes. It follows that if a firm recruits from the whole industry, it may acquire genes from a range of types of company; research based or generic, big or small, incrementally innovative or discontinuously innovative. However, if a firm develops a habit of choosing from a small part of the industry ('large, global, primary care brand experience essential' for example) then it will restrict the genes (that is, routines) it acquires. Over time, this will accelerate the speciation of the industry as subgroups of companies become more alike to each other and more different from other subgroups.

Eventually, it will become impossible for the subgroups to exchange some routines. They will become separate, distinct, business models.

By focusing on a particular trait we may open ourselves up to unintended consequences, neglecting the full range of routines we need

Unintended consequences
And there are other implications too. In nature, sexual selection can work against natural selection. A peacock's tail may make it less able to feed and avoid predators but it survives because this is outweighed by the peahen's preferences. The business analogue is clear. That guy you recruited because he worked on a very similar brand may be less good for your company than the other guy who worked on a rather different brand or even a different industry. And, as the peacock teaches us, some candidates may learn to wave their tail about in order to disguise their less good qualities. My emphasis on finance skills or multichannel marketing might mean that I am covering up my inability to work in a team.

All this implies that we need to be careful of sexual selection in the interview room. To be clear, I'm not talking about gender bias or discrimination here. I mean that by focusing on a particular trait we may open ourselves up to unintended consequences, neglecting the full range of routines we need to acquire by using recent career history as a lazy shorthand. A better, more rigorous approach is to figure out the 'routineome' we need to have to help us get there. But, as many of us know to our cost, a pretty CV can easily seduce us.

17th March 2016

From: Healthcare

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