Do You Work for Super Chicken?



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Performance management and chickens

William Muir is an evolutionary biologist who studies chickens and productivity.

Productivity is something that a lot of chicken farmers (and most of the rest of us) want. Productivity in chickens is easy to measure.  You count the number of eggs the chickens produce — if only it was that easy in our organisations.

To boost chicken productivity, Dr Muir applied performance management to his flock of chickens.  He set up a breeding programme.

He chose the chickens that produced the most eggs and bred them.  He hoped to produce offspring that would lay even more eggs.  He carried out the experiment, chicken and egg for six generations, each time taking the most productive chickens and weeding out the least.  Taking the forced distribution to its ultimate conclusion:  Producing the super chicken.

As all good scientists do, he also kept a control flock of ordinary chickens.  Just so he could measure his success.

The result of the experiment

Six generations later, he compared the performance of the two groups.

The ordinary flock were bustling about producing eggs.

The result from the super flock was startling. Three of the chickens were in a sorry state, battered and bruised. The rest of the flock was dead.

In their fight for supremacy they had pecked each other to death.

Chickens in management

Can you compare six generations of eugenics with your average performance management system?

There are a couple of stark differences.  But there are also some similarities.

For 8 years I worked for an American bank that applied the “vitality curve“. Every six months we went through a forced distribution process.  The top performers were given bonuses and bigger jobs.  The bottom performers were given the sack.

On and off I was lucky enough to be considered a “top performer”.  Though I didn’t see a breeding programme.  Nobody ever offered to have sex with me.  So I can’t claim to be a founder of an Arian management race.

What I did notice was a huge amount of competition for the top spots.  Whilst I never saw anybody get pecked to death, there was a reasonable amount of backstabbing and plenty of strutting cocks.

More quantitatively, I’m sure that it did nothing for organisational productivity.  The bank certainly didn’t out-compete any of the other banks in the market.

Can you draw a parallel?

Is it fair to compare the results of a chicken breeding programme with our human resource processes?  I’d say you can take the story of the super chicken with a pinch of salt, except for one thing:

It always elicits a wry smile.

Is selective breeding working in your organisation?

This blog post has been re-published by kind permission of James Lawther – View the original post

Published On: 29th Feb 2016 - Last modified: 6th Feb 2019
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