David Heinemeier Hansson

July 25, 2023

Pick promise over proof

After hiring people for twenty years, I've come to accept that it's impossible to know up front what someone is truly capable of. Sure, we try our best to make good, educated guesses during the hiring process, and this is why asking finalists to do sample work projects is so crucial. But it still remains just guessing, and the truth doesn't emerge until you afford the hire a full attempt on a real project.

That's why I'm such a fan of starting new employees in the deep end. Putting them to work on a real project right away. But this is only half the commitment you ought to make to their potential.

It's just as important to retain the possibility of rapid progression by continuing to test their promise against harder and bigger challenges. I can't tell you the number of times I've been positively surprised by what someone is capable of when they've only been given a chance to prove it.

But it is a gamble. You simply don't and won't know how fast someone is able to advance unless you're willing to risk letting them fail. The only way to play it safe is to wait until you're convinced they're capable of that bigger challenge, but by then you've waited far too long. Spoiling precious months or years of their potential.

The truth is that most projects can afford to fail. Much of the work we all do most of the time is far lower stakes than we all care to admit. It's rare that a single project has the power to put your business at serious risk, and if so, just don't use that one as an opportunity to validate someone's untested promise.

Besides, even if someone fails to rise to the occasion on a given project, there's usually plenty of time to step in with corrections or even a reassignment before it goes down in flames.

The trick is to think of all your projects as a series of games. Whether you win or tie a few early ones matters far less than building your capacity to crush them consistently later. Giving everyone on your team the chance to be their absolute best as quickly as possible is how build that crushing capacity.

This is hard to do consistently. It's much easier to tap your most trusted and proven employees when assembling the team for a challenging project. But every play you give to someone you know can do it, is a play you've kept from someone who might have been able to. The rate of improvement for your team as a whole is a function of how many promising members you can convert into proven contenders.

Take more chances on promise.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.