Credentialing Innovation: Delivering best practice or just more of the same?

By Garrett Fisher
October 17, 2012

I recently had the exquisite experience of dealing with an excellent example of subpar thinking patterns shrouded in a wrapper of delusional innovation and cleverness. There is a shared parking lot and driveway between a town park that I visit and a school. During the morning mania where Southern parents drop their children off, the inadequacies of the traffic management plan bubbled to the surface – resulting in confusion and a hysterical cacophony of screaming crossing guards and angry teachers at my apparent traffic transgression. As I communicated with the school principal and town park and recreation department afterward via email to express my fervent indignation, the principal noted that “we worked with the Huntersville Police department to devise a traffic management plan.” That deeply insightful comment laid the groundwork for a significant realization: this woman believes that the police are the best suited to devise a traffic management plan. This, in light of the fact that Huntersville has some of the most snarled traffic around and I, a mere ignorant and untrained commoner, pointed out the travesties of their plan and corrected them.

Let’s add one additional experience. The trees in our neighborhood recently grew too large and began to create difficulty for garbage trucks to pass through. In response, the town called a “tree service” to dismember and maim the trees. They hacked and mutilated the trees in a way that I don’t think I could have out done even if I tried. Their lack of skill and abominable workmanship was unspeakable. Yet – their vehicle proudly stated that they were from an established “tree service.” Clearly their terrible work product would continue to be patronized and believed to be an acceptable outcome by the general public. How could this be?

All too common, individuals believe that they can achieve the best possible outcome by hiring someone who is credentialed in their trade. If you want your windows washed, call a window washer. If you are sick, call a doctor. If you want someone to trust, call a lawyer. Worse, if you want someone to make you money, call an accountant. Yet – as these two experiences – plus most of my life interactions show – the worst person on the planet to hire to deliver a stellar outcome is someone who has a stated profession to do so. Fundamentally speaking, there is a difference between performing work and delivering best practice. Our lovely school principal wanted her kids dropped off. Our open-thinking town government wanted to placate the garbage trucks and adhere to tree clearance regulations. Did the school or tree service care about other cars in the parking lot, how the trees looked, or an overall best practice solution for all parties involved? Clearly not.

Enter the Wal-Mart Effect

There is obviously a difference between thinking and doing. Routine services which do not require much skill follow the Wal-Mart Effect: products that can be cheaply produced are done so in cheap jurisdictions, on a mass scale, and with barely tolerable, minimal quality to produce the cheapest price possible – and there is not enough of a feedback cycle to inform the retailer that this method is hurting everyone. The school didn’t want to spend much money on the traffic plan and the town could care less if I don’t like incapacitated and butchered trees. Ordinary business services become a commodity and follow the same path: barely tolerable minimum quality for cheaper listed prices. And yet society still feels that these “credentialed” individuals have a capability to deliver superior outcomes.

What Drives the Wal-Mart Effect?

In a simple comparison between someone who is best in their field vs an ordinary professional, the ordinary professional is going to win the price war while the best-in-class professional will deliver a superior outcome. The inability for the purchaser to distinguish between the short-term gain (cheaper price) and long-term problem (inferior outcome) is evident when the majority of the time price is the #1 driver.

To dig even deeper into the human psyche, there is a correlation between safety and control. People feel safest with what they can control the most. So – trusting a simple credential or brand name – is easy to control and coupled with price feels like a safe outcome. The problem is that market forces discount irrelevant control and place price premiums on high-impact control. When credentials are in place, it becomes an easy trap to fall into the illusion that the safest outcome is to use the cheapest credentialed professional when the most meaningful impact (and therefore true safety) is going to come from a superior service provider.

Credentialing Innovation: A Challenge

Regulated trades (doctor, lawyer, CPA, etc) are governed by state laws that mainly seek to prevent malicious treatment of clients, fraud and outright stupidity. They prevent clearly inept individuals that can’t pass a test from obtaining a trade and they push out the bottom 0.1% of practitioners that are grossly incompetent or criminal. They do not ensure that a worthwhile outcome will be achieved by using their services. As regulations mount upon themselves in response to loopholes, law codes get larger and more and more occluded from the desired outcome: good services at a fair price for the population.

So if regulating trades doesn’t deliver best practice, what about education? Learning something is certainly a time tested positive. However, academic institutions leave much to be desired. First – when did the professional obtain their degree? 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago? If the degree was relevant, then why do none of us trust the 24 year-old college graduate with the freshest, most up-to-date degree and prefer the guy that went to school 25 years ago? Why is 10 years of experience (at minimum) required before a professional can break out on their own and be trusted in their field? Clearly formalized education, while a foundational prerequisite, is not enough to deliver best practice or innovation.

To further the case of the failures of institutionalized education, I had an interesting conversation with a political science graduate from a private university. He had obtained his Bachelors degree and was on the threshold of deciding to pursue his next degree. He was struggling with whether or not he ought to teach at the University or seek a position in a commercial enterprise. I advised “why not pursue your Masters and then worry about your Doctorate later?” How little I knew! Apparently in this context, the Masters is applicable for getting a job and the Doctorate for teaching – either choose the Masters path or the Doctorate path. You cannot get the Masters and then pursue the Doctorate. In other words – you either teach or work – not both. One who gets a degree in his field with the intention of putting it to use is unqualified to teach and vice versa: one who is qualified to teach is unqualified to work in this field. I found this reality puzzling. Are our academic institutions merely replicating information with minimal or no feedback cycle as to whether or not they work? Why is an individual who has been educated and put it into practice in the real world somehow less qualified than someone who merely has more education? Apparently the educational fabric of society does not create a reliable credential to ensure best practice or innovative outcomes.

So if regulation and education fail to ensure that someone is using their brain, why not measure the brain itself? Is IQ an adequate measure of best practice? Intelligence quotient is a measure of the ability of an individual to spatially recognize greater numbers of variables when assessing a situation and coming to a conclusion. In theory, the higher quantity of variables evaluated before rendering an opinion would imply that accuracy and sensibility would be higher as more factors are taken under consideration. IQ also implies a faster learning ability – subject to other limiting and enabling conditions unique to the person involved. Unfortunately, IQ is often correlated opposite to common sense. Intelligent people can split atoms and can’t find eyeglasses when they are wearing them or are unable to tie their shoes. Quantities of variables measured often result in an individual excelling in one particular gift and being closer to ordinary in others. IQ tests also miss talent by having overly standardized testing methodologies. Bottom line: IQ is helpful only if the person is suited for the task at hand.

The current practice among the human resources world is to measure success by years of education, years of experience, and tenure at existing positions. Three simple numbers where more is better and less is worse. Such a system hardly rewards best practice or innovative thinking; for, in fact an individual that drives best practice may continuously excel in their field thereby changing positions frequently and being labeled as a failure. Someone earlier in their career with a track record of superior results may also be better suited for a company before they break out on their own and establish their own firm – thereby no longer accessible via the employment market. Innovation and superior results are relegated to finding it individually (“diamond in the rough”) or knowing someone. In the world of cloud-based big-data analytics, it is amazing that we are still using methods from 1000 BC to segregate open-thinking and top performance from mediocrity.

How to Measure Innovation

One of the problems with measuring innovation and superior performance is that, much like economic bubbles, people chase the metric and not the underlying thought behind it. In the current environment, formalized education has been espoused as the path to success and now we have clearly incompetent individuals pursuing degrees en masse under the assumption that riches will follow. They don’t – and the bar is set higher for everyone else to stand out. We have a degree-based education bubble on our hands which has occluded who are the top performers and who are not.

So why not create a Bachelors program – a B.S. in Innovation – where students are immersed in nothing but open-thinking and how to foster change for the better? It would work at first – until it became apparent to the job marketplace that those with a B.S. in Innovation excelled above their peers. Then everyone would try to get one and it would dilute its effectiveness.

What we need instead is a wholesale change in thinking. There is a difference between thinking and doing – between exploring and executing – between improving and merely performing. Where positions require top-notch thinking and effective change, then companies need to begin measuring the amount of innovation they need for the position and quantify how innovative the candidate is. They do not need to measure tenure, years of college and years of experience.

Companies instead should be asking: how many open-source projects has the candidate worked on? How many research projects that were part of studies during college? How many articles have they written on subjects in their field? How many startups have they been part of? Speaking engagements? Creation of meetup groups? The list can get long – and can also be highly insightful. No longer would companies flounder making mismatched hires – and no longer would innovative thinkers be forced to excel in mediocrity to get recognized. We instead would have a society that cultivates innovation instead of trying to crush it. After all – a growth-based, post-industrial capitalist economy will collapse upon itself unless it innovates.