A few days ago, in the course of some routine correspondence at work with a colleague at another company, I noticed his email signature: “Win Over Others | Communication | Strategic | Analytical | Activator.” In my reply, I included a postscript, “p.s.: I’d be Intellection| Strategic | Input | Context | Ideation.” If this exchange sounds obscure to you, it’s because you haven’t taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder personality test, which is currently undergoing a fax-machine effect of sorts, creating a whole new language of interpersonal communication. The two sets of five words above are “themes” the test reveals. Chances are, you’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test at some point in your career. I suspect the MBTI is currently the most widely-used test of its sort. Today, I make a prediction: the Clifton StrengthsFinder will displace the Myers-Briggs by 2011. Let me tell you why (and why you should care).
The MBTI is built on the rather shady and shaky foundation of Jungian archetypes. You take a test (here’s one) that places you on four spectra: Introversion-Extroversion, iNtuitive-Sensory, Thinking-Feeling, Judging-Perceiving. I am an INTP — very strongly NT, and on the cusp with I and P. The MBTI dates back to World War II, and its conceptual framework dates even further back, to Jung’s work from 1921.
Arbitrary though this may seem (and many professional psychology writers are rather dismissive and sniffy about it), the MBTI is surprisingly useful, not least because of the sort of fax machine effect that the StrengthsFinder is currently starting to enjoy. So many people have taken the MBTI test by now, that it provides a very useful conceptual vocabulary for quickly communicating your personality, and a shorthand for “reading” others. It also seems to correlate fairly well with things like occupation — most engineering researchers I know are _NT_.
So long as you understand the distinctions correctly (Introversion means being “energized by solitude” rather than company, not that you are klutzy socially, for instance), and resist the temptation to adopt your test results as definitive labels, MBTI is great for quick interpersonal-trust building shorthand, and as a lens for introspection. Like any self-reported test, it can be gamed, but why bother doing that?
The Clifton StrengthsFinder on the other hand, is spankin’ new. The underlying ideas sound very intuitive, obvious and have the feel of age-old wisdom, but surprisingly, if you look back to the usual-suspect thinkers, from Maslow to Seligman, you’ll find that while there are times they come close, they don’t quite get there. The instrument, named after Donald Clifton of Gallup, is based on three ideas:
- A talent is a natural, spontaneous ability that shows up as a natural ability to perform well in a domain
- A skill is something you can learn. How quickly and well depends on your underlying talents.
- A strength is an ability to perform consistently at a very high, skilled level in a domain
Quick example: natural athleticism and hand-eye coordination (a talent), coupled with years of training to acquire the skills, might make you strong in a particular sport.
If this sounds obvious, consider the implications derived by the strengths community: everybody cannot be good at everything. You should focus on developing your strengths, and just do the bare minimum to manage around your weaknesses. Most of our formal education systems are built on the premise of fixing weaknesses. If you do badly in math and well in English, your teachers are going to give you remedial training in the former, and leave the latter alone. The strengths movement would say that your teachers should actually focus on creating more English development opportunities for you.
The StrengthsFinder test is designed to reveal your top “themes,” or areas of endeavor where you are likely to have strengths (the themes themselves come from extensive statistical studies). To take the StrengthsFinder, you have to buy one of the books on the theme published by Gallup: Now, Discover Your Strengths and the shorter, cheaper StrengthsFinder 2.0, are the main ones. You then head on over to the StrengthsFinder website and use the code in your book (single-use only, so don’t try to steal a code from a B&N copy) to take the test. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any direct way to take the test on the Website.
My top 5 themes are Intellection, Strategic, Input, Context and Ideation. Here is the personalized report the online test generated for me, explaining these themes: Venkat’s strengths
None of this is new to me (and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my themes shouldn’t surprise you either), but then, I discovered and accepted my strengths (and weaknesses) the hard way back in 1999 — through depressing and painful years trying to “fix” my weaknesses. I have played to my strengths since, with shockingly effective results. But a lot of people who haven’t been through painful learning experiences (yet), are actually very surprised by what the test reveals as their strengths. You might be too. The good news is, if you accept and start playing to your strengths before experience validates them, you might save yourself a few unproductive life years. Maybe even an entire wasted life.
Why Strengths will Win
So why do I think strengths-based instruments (most likely the Clifton, as early-mover) will displace MBTI? Two reasons:
- More Actionable: The Myers-Briggs is rather tricky to use as a guide to action. After the initial head-rush of introspective clarity that it brings, it is hard to answer the question, “now what?” The StrengthsFinder results, on the other hand, are very specific and directive: try and work yourself into a career situation where you get a chance to play to your strengths every day.
- More Relevant: For the low-end work of the industrial age, you can train people, and shore up weaknesses enough, that they become roughly interchangeable and identical parts in a workflow. When it comes to all but the simplest sort of information work though, most managers have recognized that you get a lot more productivity by letting people find their way to work that plays to their strengths. This exaggerates differences over time, leading to more unique parts, rather than more interchangeable parts. Management becomes tougher — you have to set coarser, directional objectives rather than specific ones, put a lot more effort into putting people in the right teams, and deal with flux as people elbow their way to their sweet spots, but ultimately it pays off a lot more. Strengths instruments help you quickly detect and manage to strengths.
And why does this matter? The fax machine effect: soon you’ll encounter the vocabulary of StrengthsFinder in everyday life, and whether or not you believe in the test, you’ll end up fumbling in conversations.
I do wish though, that Gallup got rid of the annoying need to buy the damn book to take the test. They really should just let you pay online and take the test. Throw in an affiliate-marketing scheme, and a “train the trainers” certification program, and the fax-machine effect will swamp the world.
Disclosure: When this post appeared, my wife worked for Gallup Inc. I had no relationship with the company however.