On Chickens and Sales Performance

Here’s a great story about the sales performance of individuals versus groups,  involving chickens:

William Muir, an animal breeder at Purdue University, wanted to increase egg production by selective breeding, and he tried to do it in two ways. Both involved housing hens in cages (groups), which is standard practice in the poultry industry. The first method involved selecting the most productive hen within each cage to breed the next generation of hens. The second method involved selecting the most productive cages and using all the hens from those cages to breed the next generation of hens. You might think that the difference between the two methods is slight and that the first method should work better.  After all, it is individuals who lay eggs, so selecting the best individuals directly should be more efficient than selecting the best groups, which might include some individual duds.

The results told a completely different story. When Bill presented his results at a scientific conference, he showed a slide of hens selected by the first method after six generations. The audience gasped.  Inside the cage were only three hens, not nine, because the other six hens had been murdered.  The three survivors had plucked each other during their incessant attacks and were now nearly featherless… What happened?  The most productive individuals had achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of their cage mates.

The first method caused egg productivity to perversely decline, even though the most productive hens were chosen each and every generation. The second method caused egg productivity to increase 160 percent in six generations, an astonishing response as artificial selection experiments go.

Excerpt from Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson

(HT to @rickladd @merigruber)

When organizations are looking to improve their sales results, consultants (myself included) will often give them the following advice: “Look at what your top performers do — really look and understand what they do — and then get more people to do what they do.”

This experiment in chicken productivity shows an important qualifier to that advice:   Sometimes what allows an individual to outperform their peers is the degree to which they SUPPRESS the performance of their peers. So the part about “really look and understand what they do”  has to take into account the wider context of their group.

This experiment also illustrates one of several reasons why simply rewarding and promoting top salespeople to positions of management without developing them properly often has negative effects on overall company performance. Often times, the top performers will attain a level of influence that allows them to determine the make-up of their team via homosocial reproduction, which is a fancy way of saying, “jerks like to hire other jerks.”  Through the process of attrition of non-jerks and the hiring of additional jerks, before you know it, you’ve got a situation very similar to one faced by that chicken breeder:

 After six generations, Muir had produced a nation of psychopaths, who plucked and murdered each other in their incessant attacks. No wonder egg productivity plummeted!

If a company has more than one sales team, it’s easier to figure this out.  Having multiple sales teams means you can compare them as groups. You may notice that the groups which act in supportive concert — for example, with some people focusing on outreach and qualifying new customers, others focusing on managing the RFP process, and others focusing on pitching and closing — those are the teams that do better than the groups full of sharp-elbowed Alpha sales players who all go straight for the kill / close.

The trick to building Alpha sales teams is to find the right mix of players.


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 11, 2009, in Business, Learning, Sales and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Love this post, D. Very insightful.

    Sometimes the flock is stronger than the sum of its hens. . .

    Or something like that.


  2. Seems like a different take of survival of the fittest. Some fancy professor at Harvard (black woman — I point that out because she was the first tenured or something like that and it makes it easier to find out her name) says that instead of adding to a team of people those who tested best on a test, you should seek to add the person that got right the answers others got wrong. She says those with the best test results think alike, so what you should be aiming for is to cover all your basis. Also, I think a group where people get along and are happy working together would perform better overall. Personality and group atmosphere should also be in the mix of desired characteristics.

  3. Just love your style amigo.

    I can see a new programme for rogenSi coming on..

    “Breakthrough to Peak Performing Chickens”


  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Sandra: The woman you’re refering to is Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier. Thanks to your comment I went off and read some of her writings on issues of social diversity and inclusion. She makes some great distinctions between “easy” solutions of affirmative action (diversity driven by equality laws and anti-discrimination norms), versus the more difficult, harder-to-implement but ultimately more effective “citizenship” or “responsibility” based approaches.

    Guinier’s ideas read to me as a kind of social justice reality check: Diversity and inclusion policies can be tested (and ultimately improved) by practical performance criteria. Taking it back to the sales chickens: Even if an individual sales team member is not a top “closer,” they must step up to the plate and deliver in their unique way – some other element that is visibly (and preferably, measurably) crucial for the group’s success. Otherwise, the policy of diversity won’t survive very long.

    On the flipside, going back to one of my recurring themes: For the individual sales performer’s OWN survival, they should think twice before over-specializing to the point where they no longer have the basic “egg laying” capabilities of closing sales. Otherwise, if things change in the cage (or if they have to move to another cage), they may find themselves out of pluck.

    (couldn’t resist that)

  1. Pingback: O.D.D. Behavior: What to do if you “Care Too Much” « Meme Menagerie

  2. Pingback: Deeper Diversity: Part 1 | Dan Spira

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