February 21, 2011

Skimboarder Physics for Recruiters (Part I)

“L = mvr, where L is the angular momentum, m is the mass of the small object, v is the magnitude of its velocity, and r is the separation between the objects.”—from a physics webinar, Department of Physics, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


You don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to be a good recruiter. But knowing something about the skimboarder physics of surfing over thin films of water and gliding on and around shallow wavelets may deepen and broaden your vision of recruitment dynamics.

Even a brief exposure to skimboarding and some thought about its principles will amply demonstrate their recruitment relevance, as I discovered during my first exposure to the sport—only as a spectator—at Jericho Beach, in Vancouver this past weekend.

If you are not familiar with skimboarding—a kind of entry-level surfing that sacrifices the rush and power of monster waves for the pleasurable precision of shallow-water maneuvering, you should be able to master the concepts, if not the techniques, and apply them in recruiting by the time you’ve finished reading this.

For example, the skimboarding technique called the “shove-it”—which, at least nominally, many recruiters can relate to—involves dynamics and kinematics that are replicated in recruiting. Basically, a shove-it is like a pizza toss-and-twirl performed from above the pizza rather than from the normal position, below. Standing on the board, the skimboarder jumps up from the board, but imparts a torque and spin to it with his feet, causing it to rotate as much as 180 degrees before the falling feet get planted on the board again.

What makes this stunt possible is friction (between feet and board) and angular momentum (of the rotating board) which is characterized by a kind of inertia (tendency of an object to persist in its state of motion unless acted upon by an [additional] external force).

The Recruitment “Shove-It” Technique

A key similarity to recruiting is this: Analogically, the recruiter is the skimboarder and the job candidate is the skimboard. After initial contact, recruiter and candidate have some “traction” with each other—just as rider and board do. Then, the recruiter gives the job and the candidate his spin. If the recruiter has to reverse himself, e.g., because the job has been filled, he may have to do a one-eighty, turn the candidate around, and essentially run a bait-and-switch to another, less appealing job, if one is available. It’s at that point that the candidate may tell the recruiter to “shove it”.

Less whimsically, the dynamics and kinematics lessons that skimboarding and recruiting share are conceptually deep:  lessons about friction, (angular) momentum and associated inertia (“moment of inertia”, to be precise for strict physicist types).

1.       Friction/Traction: To complete the skimboarding shove-it maneuver, friction, a.k.a. traction, is essential. Analogously, that means that even though the job placement process is thought of as steps that ideally proceed smoothly—“frictionless glide”, so to speak, flawless execution presupposes some traction between candidate and recruiter, just as it does between skimboarder and board.

This may seem obvious and unrestrictedly true—until you think about it. The facile assumption that there must always be traction, some “meshing”, if you will, between recruiter and candidate can be challenged by asking in what instances “tractionless recruiting” is possible and effective. For example, I once experienced virtually anonymous recruiting, with minimal contact between recruiter and candidate (in this case, myself)—the kind I had to put up with in Japan when invited by a national security agency to fly to an exam as a screening step.

I almost never got anything but preposterously laconic responses to anything I asked at the various stages of the recruitment process—queries about the job, initial application procedure, hiring time frame, resume submission and review, sitting the exam, exam results review and final decision. For details about how that went and turned out, see my article “Agent Double-O-No!: How Not to Be Recruited by Spooks“.

Other possible tractionless scenarios include “single-blind” interviewing, in which only the applicant is visible, e.g., through a Skype video camera, as a matter of Dr. No-ish/Charlie’s Angels policy or software failure. In this situation, too, recruiter and candidate don’t mesh as they normally would—instead, the only option is connection and adhesion by means of a kind of “one-way Velcro”, with the recruiter connecting more completely than the candidate.

Just as being a celebrity “film star” skimboarder who knows when and how to maximize traction (above the board, in the shove-it) and minimize it (under the board, in gliding toward a wave or a jump) while navigating film-thick surf of ideally no more than 3-5 inches deep, being a Big Kahuna recruiter requires knowing when and when not to utilize, adapt to and capitalize on (non-) traction with candidates. So there is a broad lesson to be learned from the gliding, maneuvering skimboarder: Since traction/friction can work for you or against you,  know how and when to optimize it.

Typically, traction (think “engagement”) will increase at each step of the way, from virtually zero at the job-posting stage to much more at the “grooming” stage. As is the case with skimboarding, recruiter traction and gliding will still require blending with continuously adjusted balance and finesse.

Moreover, and perhaps a consideration that is less intuitively clear, a recruiter must recognize how and when there may be simultaneous—and not merely sequential—needs for traction and non-traction, on analogy with above-board and below-board friction (or absence thereof). For example, to navigate through a pool of candidates, a recruiter must juggle, identify and prioritize those to be engaged, and take steps to gain traction with the best as quickly as possible, while simultaneously gliding past and over the rest.

Despite however obvious this may seem, there is always a danger that when dealing with time constraints and/or large numbers of job applicants, the recruiter may “glide” over and skim all of them and leave otherwise highly qualified and motivated candidates floundering in his or her wake. That’s as likely to set up a fall in the boardroom as it is on the skimboard.

2. Momentum: “Momentum” sounds good, positive, forceful—until you think about aikido and jiujitsu, which use an opponent’s momentum against him to nullify his moves. Sometimes, just as a skimboarder’s momentum may carry her into a wipeout, a recruiter’s momentum with a candidate can result in a regrettably premature or otherwise overshot commitment, e.g., a quick signing with little negotiation of the high salary—a case of the candidate’s using your momentum to his or her advantage.

However, positive or not, one kind of momentum is always “conserved”. Determined by the size, mass and rate of spin of the board, skimboarding angular momentum is key to pulling off the “shove-it” technique. Conservation of angular momentum is what allows skaters to speed up or slow down their dazzling rotations merely by extending or retracting their arms. As they do that, there is no change in angular momentum, save for the slowing down to a stop caused by dizziness, boredom, end of the performance, or friction with the surface of the ice and ambient air.

A talented skimboarder should be able to do the same thing. What is the implication of this for recruiting? Think of yourself, the recruiter, as being like a ball on a string that is being spun around the head of a job candidate. The closer (psychologically) you are to the candidate, i.e., the shorter the string, the faster you, the ball, will spin (behaviorally), i.e., the faster you will make things happen, “other things being equal”. Similarly, the farther from the candidate, the slower you will “spin” (your pitch) around him.

Physical and Psychological Momentum

In practical, applied terms, this means that as the psychological distance from a candidate increases, the candidate will notice the pace of advance slowing down—assuming that there are no external constraints, such as a fixed notification date for all applicants, a canceled job offer, logistical bottlenecks and the like.

As that psychological distance decreases, the candidate will, in the absence of such constraints beyond the recruiter’s control, notice the pace pick up, much as a ball on a shorter string will spin faster around the center of its motion.

Not understanding the (recruiter) physics of the situation, the candidate will conclude that his placement process is “gathering momentum”. What he doesn’t realize is that from the recruiter standpoint, there is no change in momentum as the psychological distance decreases (or increases). Instead, the smaller psychological distance causes the faster progress, just as the greater psychological distance causes the slower progress (again assuming no external constraints or disturbances).

The key insight here is that despite the candidate’s perception of increasing or decreasing momentum, the recruiter is conserving his or hers. In what sense? The recruiter is keeping the product of “distance” x “effort” constant as they vary inversely.

The psychological analogy with what happens as the physical ball’s string is lengthened and skimboarders and figure skaters extend their arms is quite close—except for one thing.

When a recruiter extends his hand to seal the deal or his arms for a congratulatory hug and dance, there may be a decrease in physical angular momentum despite the huge increase and celebration of psychological momentum.

Next, in Part II: how to make the most of the physics of the “ollie”, “flatland” and more in recruiting

Read more in Recruitment Strategies

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).