Why You Should Hire Using Evolution vs. Design Thinking


Design Thinking, regardless of arena, has one or few people at the top dispensing special knowledge that could not possibly be created by the masses. The underlying concept is that the special one or few know better than everyone else, and that it’s best if the group simply adopts the wisdom, for their own good.

Evolution Thinking takes a very different approach. Its underlying assumption is that it’s either hard or impossible to have this type of supreme knowledge, and that the best way to arrive at the best outcomes is to follow Evolution’s lead. The steps are to 1) combine lots of varied things together, 2) have the ideas mix and produce slight variations, and 3) test those outputs against what you’re looking to accomplish.

Hiring—especially in the tech world—suffers badly from Design Thinking.

The general premise behind most implementations of tech hiring is that someone (a manager or an HR department) has the truth about what makes a good employee. They know the magic traits. They know the magic questions. And they use this secret knowledge to pick their winners.

They then require that this truth be enforced downward through the organization in the filtering of candidates. People are required to ask the same (or similar) questions, to filter in a similar way, culminating in a decision that either accepts or rejects the candidate.

That’s Design. It’s top-down, with the smart people “knowing” what’s best to look for and then hiring based on it.

Applying Evolution Thinking to hiring yields a very different approach. It creates a pool of potentially good candidates and subjects them to an environment designed to select winners. This can be done in varying degrees: from a basic work sample, to an internship, a short contract relationship, etc.

Once in this environment, certain employees will do ok, some will thrive, and others will sputter. There are people who believe they can predict this 100%. Don’t believe them.

The number of variables involved in selecting a good employee—not only for a given company, but for a given position and role—are legion. Is IQ involved? Of course. Grit? Surely. Creativity? Probably. Communication skills? Competence with the subjects and material they’ll be dealing with? Experience?

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Yes. Possibly all of these.

But what’s the appropriate mix of these various traits for each given the nuances of the company and position you’re hiring for? How many possible combinations do you have to consider to do this effectively? Hundreds? Thousands?

The problem is that you neither know 1) the optimum mix for the job you’re hiring for, nor 2) the mix that this candidate actually has. If you don’t have both of those, you basically have nothing.

Design Thinking is marinated in hubris. It’s the belief that you have special knowledge or talent that makes you special. I’ve seen it in early versions of myself, and I’ve seen it in others. You might have great intuitions. You might be good at reading people. Fine. But don’t bet the quality of your team, and the organization, on that belief.

If you truly want to test your intuitions, do it the right way.

  1. Capture your predictions somewhere and don’t change them

  2. Use the Evolution model to select your candidates correctly (based on performance in the job)

  3. Go back and see how you did

The performance of those candidates is truth. That’s reality. Don’t let yourself be convinced by anything else.


  1. Design Thinking in hiring means there’s a manager or HR department that thinks they know the unicorn traits and how to find them

  2. Evolution Thinking in hiring is realizing there are too many variables at play, and that you need to agnostically try lots of diverse options and let reality (results) show you the top performers

  3. Tech hiring is deeply Design Thinking oriented, and it would do well to move more towards Evolution


  1. Properly measuring performance is a key piece of this, so make sure you’re doing that well.

  2. There are some constraints to implementing Evolution Thinking in the tech world, i.e., you can’t just hire 100 employees and take the top 5 performers after 3 months. A number of professions do precisely that (investment banking, large sales teams, etc.), with great results, but it’s just not a model that tech can easily move to. But what tech CAN do is understand that our pet indicators are often not useful (or worse), and start thinking more about diversity of the hiring pool and performance measurement as a better path forward.

  3. This is part of my Design vs. Evolution Series, where I capture examples of Design vs. Evolution thinking across many areas of business and life.

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