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Picking Losers

At my virtual right hand is a stack of applications to be read. At my left a stack that will be passed forward to important people for review (I’m not one of the important people.) And on the floor, the ones to get the thank you “but no thank you” forms letters.

The application form was long and contained the questions that needed to be answered and the scoring rubric. In the vernacular, it goes like this for each question. 

  • 0 — left out
  • 5 — addressed in a stupider manner than you could imagine
  • 6 — addressed in the stupidest manner you could imagine
  • 7 — not stupid, but not workable
  • 8 — meh
  • 9 — good
  • 10 — wow.

The applicants get a weighted average of the scores. No one should get less than a 9 on anything and anything with about 9.2, or 9.3 gets sent to the “worth reading” pile.

The applications were bimodal. Most were either between 8.5 and 9.5 or else below 7.0. I was shocked that any application was below 8.0.

The difference between “left out” and “addressed in a stupider manner than you could imagine” is much larger than the difference between “meh” and “wonderful.”

You may have noticed that the difference between “left out” and “addressed in a stupider manner than you could imagine” is much larger than the difference between “meh” and “wonderful.”

One-third of all federal grants get rejected for not following the instructions. In many of the programs for small grants, half the reminder get money.

My virtual stacks of papers look sort of like that in terms of advancing to the final round (not all of those in the final round will get accepted.)

By answering most of the questions brilliantly but skipping a few, you do almost all of the most the work and walk away without a chance of getting anything.

Perhaps we should have required the applicants to initial each question on the scoring rubric saying they had answered it. Or perhaps giving them a separate form field for each question (which in this case is much more awkward than it sounds). Or perhaps this is a perfectly appropriate filtering process. That said, there were some pretty powerful ideas in that “reject early” pile.

I wish I could add to the form letters (where appropriate), “if you answered all the questions, you would have at least made it to the finals.”

But like the form design ideas, thoughts like these are above my pay grade.

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Written by Russell Brand

Russell has started three successful companies, one of which helped agencies of the federal government become very early adopters of open source software, long before that term was coined. His first project saved The American taxpayer 250 million dollars. In his work within federal agency, he was often called, “the arbiter of truth,” facilitating historically hostile groups and factions to effectively work together towards common goals

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