Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Hire for Floors, not Ceilings

“Floors” and “ceilings” are a metaphor that analysts use when talking about sports performance. (I hear this most often around basketball, but that’s also the sport I follow the most closely.) The idea is that performance is variable – humans aren’t machines – so on any given day an athlete might perform above or below their average. When we talk about an athlete’s “ceilings”, we’re talking about their maximum potential performance level: how good are they at their best? An athlete’s “floor” is the opposite: how bad are they at their worst?

Further, we’ll often talk about “high” or “low” floors or ceilings. A “high floor” means that someone’s worst is still pretty dang great; a “low ceiling” means that while they may be OK, they don’t have much potential to be better. And so on. Combining them gives us four archetypes:

  • High floor, high ceiling: MVPs – consistently great performance. These are the generational players, the ones whose names you might recognize even if you’re not a sports fan. Jordan. Taurasi. LeBron. Bird1.
  • High floor, low ceiling: reliable – consistently good, but rarely great.
  • Low floor, high ceiling: unreliable with flashes of genius – these players sometimes play Like Mike, but are just as likely to perform terribly.
  • Low floor, low ceiling: OK, you don’t see athletes like this because “consistently bad” doesn’t land you on a pro sports team. I’m just including it to round out the picture.

But why am I writing about this — other than because I’m a basketball nerd? Because in the context of hiring, we’re far too often trying to assess a candidate’s ceiling when we should be looking to assess their floor.

We’d all love to hire an “MVP” — someone with consistently great performance — but just like in sports, those people are rare. Most of the time, we’re choosing among candidates who are closer to average. The mistake we make is putting too much weight on a candidate’s potential – their ceiling – and not looking at their consistency – their floor. Someone who mostly performs below average but occasionally has flashes of brilliance is, generally speaking, a lot less valuable in a team context than someone with consistently average performance. With the “streaky” performer, you’ll never know if a task will take them a week or a month, and you won’t know if you’ll get great code or a sloppy, bug-ridden mess. The downside is usually not worth the upside2.

So when you’re hiring, try not to get caught in the trap of evaluating candidates based on their best possible performance. Look instead for consistency: reliable results in variable conditions, the ability to deliver predictably with consistent quality, and so forth. Hire for floors, not ceilings.

  1. I’ll let you try to figure out if I mean Sue or Larry. ↩︎

  2. One notable exception is research roles, where a single brilliant idea could turn into a huge new line of business, substantial cost-savings, etc. In those roles, you can be much more tolerant of variable performance as long as the upside is there. I’m sure there are other exceptions, too! ↩︎