To individualize or not?

I recently came across the term “individualization” when I took the Clifton Strengths test. It is one of the natural talents identified by Gallup. The test is at https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/253868/popular-cliftonstrengths-assessment-products.aspx (it is not free, but well worth the cost). Having given credit where it is due, for the remainder of this post, I wish to give it my twist. The second definition of “individualize” in Merriam-Webster is particularly appealing to me: to adapt to the needs or special circumstances of an individual. On one hand, we all would like to have someone adapt to our needs or special circumstances. On the other hand, can we adapt to others’ needs in an individualistic fashion?

There are some situations where individualization is standard practice. Counselling, for instance, is a highly personalized treatment. Advising a student on their thesis can be adapted to the student (although I am not sure how often it happens). In many of the newer cars you can set the temperature for each passenger’s preference. Years ago there were tailors that would make clothes to fit each person after taking measurements (hence the word tailor-made). It is fairly standard these days to have office chairs where you can adjust the height, and that feature is slowly coming in for office tables as well. Spicy food especially in Thai restaurants are available at various levels.

However, you may ask if individualization is practiced in the workplace for employee roles and responsibilities? In the name of fairness we tend to have non-individualized conditions. For example, in a research university, all tenure-track faculty are expected to teach, write papers, advice students, get grants, etc. To make matters worse, a single metric such as H-index is used to size up a researcher. One can make a similar case in industry jobs as well. Would you hire someone who is too shy to even look at your face, but you know is a stellar programmer? You may hire him, but also say “let’s hire him and coach him out of shyness” or something to that effect. How about “let’s hire him and he can remain shy all his career”?

Interestingly, in recent times there has been a lot of individualization as well as its antithesis, one of which I think is — scaling. If we want to make things cheaper and faster, individualization becomes an obstacle. For decades we have had mass production, and now we develop scalable solutions. That includes one-model-fits-all algorithms. While they work extremely well for the average case, they could be quite problematic for edge cases. For example, to decide whether or not to approve someone a loan, using their demographics an algorithm can make a quick decision to approve or deny the loan. But a thorough background check that could have taken weeks, may have been more accurate (but highly non-scalable).

Having said that, let us take a moment to reflect on how individualization has been a driving force of technology. From a product standpoint we are into mass customization using 3D printing, as an example. Also, whether you like it or not, there are a lot of choices when you go into a coffee shop (a barista can cater to nearly any of your reasonable needs). Content (such as movies, podcasts, videos) is created to appeal to a broad variety of audiences. On one hand there is something for nearly anyone’s tastes or interests, but on the other hand, finding that thing may be hard. Hence the advent of mass customization using recommender systems (of suggesting content/ads based on one’s viewing history).

The point of this article is to think about individualization in the work-place. In that light, here are some things to consider.

Identify Strengths and Growth Opportunities

Even if our team is uniform with similar backgrounds and experiences, everyone in the team would have their passions and strengths. We should not assume their strengths by stereotyping based on their gender, ethnicity, education, or experience. Instead we could take time to find out. Just having a one-on-one meeting to find that out is a first step in individualizing. Of course, it is also important to foster growth opportunities, but only if the individual is interested in it. Again, it is beneficial to first enquire about one’s interest.

Mix and Match to Achieve Scalability

Sometimes it is just not possible to give individual attention in a scalable fashion. Even in Montessori schools there isn’t one teacher to one student for the whole day. But they do a wonderful job spending one-on-one times and letting the students explore on their own at other times. Also, while developing products or solutions, we can offer some basic structure and customize for individual clients. Likewise, we could have some minimal criteria for shortlisting candidates, but holistically evaluate the shortlist later.

Individualize to the Extent Possible

It may not be practical to completely individualize. However, we could make an effort to not alienate anyone. In a classroom that can be done by considering various formats such lecture, small group discussion, going over examples, and flipped lesson. At the workplace, we could provide: somewhat flexible hours, opportunity to sometimes work from home, a choice of projects, and a mutually agreeable individualized yardstick to benchmark performance. We could constantly explore ways individualize at the workplace!

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