Gallup's "Strengths Based" programs have made a mint for the company, and have become extremely popular at a lot of major companies - including mine, National Instruments.

Generally, I really like the principles of the program. The fundamental idea is that people will perform better if you focus on their natural talents rather than trying to fix their weaknesses. This is a great tenant on which to base team building and management, in my opinion, and the "Strengths Based" books have some excellent material in them.

That said, no program is perfect. My gripes with "Strengths Quest" is the "Strengths Finder Quiz" that you take to identify your top 5 talents. It feels a bit like the quizzes you take online to see which character from "The Simpsons" you are most like. I remember one all of the girls took in high school that told them which of the characters from "Sex in the City" they were most alike.

I have taken the quiz twice, now. Taking it on your own runs you at $89, and only reveals your top 5 talents. To get the full list of 34, you have to pay more. I took it once when I did the "Strengths Quest" program for work, and a second time while reading "Strengths Based Leadership", which had a code in it for the quiz.

You can only take the quiz once (per purchased code). There are 177 questions, each of which you have 20 seconds to answer. The questions present you with two options, and you have to place yourself on a scale between the two. An example of a question (I just made this up, but I feel it is a good representation), is:

  • "You like to empower people."
  • "You like making people feel appreciated."

Understandably, trying to choose which of the two you most identify with can be pretty difficult. You can also always just answer "Neutral".

Once you take the quiz, you are given your "Top 5 Talents", and you use those as the basis to personalize the lessons of the program.

My first two questions after taking the quiz for the first time were:

  1. How reproducible are the results?
  2. How accurate can a quiz like this really be?

In terms of Number Two, I don't have any good answers. I haven't done any serious reading on quizzes like this, but it seems to me that it would be very difficult to actually prove they are accurate. For example, do people answer the questions in a way that reflects who they are, or who they want to be? How much does your current mood affect the answers? It seems to me that there are a lot of things that would affect the accuracy of such a test.

In terms of reproducibility, I can now answer that one. I took the quiz the first time in March of this year, and the second time six months later. Here are the results.

Results from First Quiz

  1. Learner
  2. Individualization
  3. Strategic
  4. Analytical
  5. Responsibility

Results from the Second Quiz

  1. Individualization
  2. Futuristic
  3. Arranger
  4. Achiever
  5. Strategic

So, of my "Top 5", only two came back the second time around. Not so great.

One of the other things you get along with your results is a personalized "Strengths Report". The last time I took the quiz with my colleagues, a number of people read their report and were pretty impressed with how much the report "accurately represented" them. Here's an example of some of the content from my most recent report:

Individualization

Chances are good that you occasionally pinpoint the unique qualities, motivations, strengths, limitations, preferences, or attitudes of certain
people. Perhaps you look for one or two things in each person. Maybe this
information permits you to set up opportunities for particular individuals to
cooperate. You might compliment those who freely share bits of their
knowledge...

There is something immediately apparent as you read the above - it's written to be a "catch-all". Look at the way each sentence starts:

  • "Perhaps you look..."
  • "Maybe this information..."
  • "You might compliment..."

It's written to be vague and open to interpretation. You are meant to read it and confirm your own bias, or overlook the parts you don't like. It doesn't really try to be accurate.

After experiencing this the first time around, I did the quiz differently the second time around. I set up my GoPro, and took a picture of every question that flashed up on the screen.

Basically every sentence in the "personalized report" is just a small expansion of a question I answered during the quiz. Since you can't look at a question for more than 20 seconds, and there are 177 of them, there is no way you would remember what you agreed to and what you didn't. Forty-five minutes later, you read a re-worded version of the question and discover that it accurately describes you. SURPRISE!

So, really, I guess I'm saying that the quiz seems a bit like a waste of time. The problem is, I don't know how you would make it better. It's a really hard problem.

I don't think this says anything about the value of the rest of "Strengths Based" programs, which as I've said, I generally think has a lot of good ideas and philosophy - but the quiz identifying your "Personal Strengths" is just a distraction. All of the "talents" are positive, and make you feel good about yourself.

Maybe that's the real value of it - it makes everyone who takes it (and who isn't a skeptic) feel positive about their ability to lead. That might be the most useful, actual, result.