Do You Work for Super Chicken?

Performance management and chickens

William Muir is an evolutionary biologist who studies chickens and productivity.

Productivity is something that a lot of chicken farmers (and most of the rest of us) want. Productivity in chickens is easy to measure.  You count the number of eggs the chickens produce — if only it was that easy in our organisations.

To boost chicken productivity Dr Muir applied performance management to his flock of chickens.  He set up a breeding programme.

He chose the chickens that produced the most eggs and bred them.  He hoped to produce offspring that would lay even more eggs.  He carried out the experiment, chicken and egg for six generations.  Each time taking the most productive chickens and weeding out the least.  Taking the forced distribution to it’s ultimate conclusion.  Producing the super chicken.

As all good scientists do he also kept a control flock of ordinary chickens.  Just so he could measure his success.

The result of the experiment

Six generations later he compared the performance of the two groups.

The ordinary flock were bustling about producing eggs.

The result from the super flock was startling. Three of the chickens were in a sorry state, battered and bruised. The rest of the flock was dead.

In their fight for supremacy they had pecked each other to death.

Chickens in management

Can you compare six generations of eugenics with your average performance management system?

There are a couple of stark differences.  But there are also some similarities.

For 8 years I worked for an American bank that applied the “vitality curve“. Every six months we went through a forced distribution process.  The top performers were given bonuses and bigger jobs.  The bottom performers were given the sack.

On and off I was lucky enough to be considered a “top performer”.  Though I didn’t see a breeding programme.  Nobody ever offered to have sex with me.  So I can’t claim to be a founder of an Arian management race.

What I did notice was a huge amount of competition for the top spots.  Whilst I never saw anybody get pecked to death, there was a reasonable amount of backstabbing and plenty of strutting cocks.

More quantitatively I’m sure that it did nothing for organisational productivity.  The bank certainly didn’t outcompete any of the other banks in the market.

Can you draw a parallel?

Is it fair to compare the results of a chicken breeding programme with our human resource processes?  I’d say you can take the story of the super chicken with a pinch of salt, except for one thing:

It always elicits a wry smile.

Jesters do oft prove prophets ~ William Shakespeare

Is selective breeding working in your organisation?

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Super Chicken

I heard the story from Margaret Heffernan, you can watch her TED talk here, it is fascinating.

Image by Ian Southwell


  1. The story definitely made me laugh, James. I suppose this is what happens when we focus on the wrong outcome or if we focus on the numbers… we encourage bad/wrong behaviors.

    Annette :-)

  2. James,
    This me think about the film ‘Deliverance’, inbreeding and scary outcomes :)


  3. It would never happen where I work Adrian.

    Nobody can play a banjo.

  4. Hello James,

    This reminds me of the time when I went to an audio shop and put together a hifi system (of separates) by taking the very best product in each category. I assumed that when you team the best products you get the best system (team) performance. Turned out that I was wrong – so wrong.

    What matters is the fit between the components. Put differently the relationship and the relating between the separate components. How did the various pieces, put together, sound? When I did listen to the older guy who owned the hifi shop and tried different combinations, I found that I got a much better sound.

    Getting there was not easy. Why? I had to give up my addiction to the belief that the best system is made up of the best individual performers. That is still a bridge to far for many organisations.

    All the best

    • I hadn’t thought of that as an example Maz. Very good.

      Obvious when you see it, yet you are right, we stick to our beliefs, often in spite of fairly substantial evidence to the contrary