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Improbable Awards

Optimize Blog - October 1, 2010 - 0 comments

The Ig Nobel awards are now in their 21st year and here at Zeitgeist we look forward to this whacky awards ceremony every year. The awards are the result of the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research which each year presents alternative awards along the lines of the rather more formal Nobel prizes.
The categories match those of the more illustrious Nobel cousin but the awards are designed to “first make you laugh and then make you think”.
The big winner this year was a science team who were recognized for their success in collecting whale snot in a Petri dish slung below a remote controlled model helicopter – apparently to examine the micro organisms and disease-carrying bugs which choose to make their home in the snot which is ejected from the whale’s blow hole as it surfaces. Brilliant!
Then there is the Physics prize awarded to Lianne Parkin (New Zealand) and colleagues for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes (!!). Quickly moving on, the Public Health Prize was awarded to Manuel Barbeito (US) and colleagues for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists…
Some of our favourites from the past include the 2008 research which proved that fleas on dogs jump higher than fleas on cats and especially the winner from 2006 – Welshman Howard Stapleton who created a device that ‘repelled teenagers’. This device, tested and deployed in some shopping malls to deter loiterers, emitted a high pitch sound inaudible to adults but annoying to teenagers. (Our readers with teenage offspring can click here to find out more…).
Perhaps none though could top the Peace prize awarded in 2007 for the team from The US Air Force Wright Laboratory for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among enemy troops – later tagged the “Gay Bomb”…
The awards are handed out by real Nobel Laureates and the mission is to “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology”.
Quite apart from the above examples of true genius, insight a dedication to ‘real’ science, one award from this year’s ceremony piqued our interest in particular – the Management Prize awarded to Alessandro Pluchino (Italy) and colleagues for demonstrating, mathematically, that organizations would become more efficient if they simply promoted people at random.
It doesn’t take much to see why this might be – nepotism, favouritism and promoting people ‘if their face fits’ are still common (and accepted) approaches in many organizations and perhaps more widespread than you might think… The end result is that the wrong person often gets selected, or the right person ends up in the wrong job. So, despite the empirical evidence of this mathematical study, perhaps random selection isn’t the ‘best’ approach – it is just better than the flawed approaches most commonly used.
Our experience suggests that such random, subjective or just inappropriate selections are rarely successful for either the individual or the organization. Conversely, it is clear (and proven) that well-structured talent management programs and effective succession planning both deliver real returns. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the best way to select the right candidate must involve a bit more than guesswork. After all, how many rocket scientists got their job through random selection?

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