How to unlock human potential. Interview with Guy Halfteck, CEO of Knack

Many, if not most, people are stuck in professions that are a poor match for their temperaments. Despite often spending years spent preparing for a career, Americans are largely unhappy at work. Fewer than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, with only 15% “very satisfied,” according to a recent study by Nielsen.

Guy Halfteck started a company called Knack to address this issue and “help unlock human potential.” The company is using the latest academic research to create casual games that identify and match people with the careers and activities that temperamentally are a good fit for them. Guy believes Knack can do a better job than tests like the SAT in determining student potential in college admissions and can significantly increase the chance that employers hire employees who will be successful in what they do. It’s a really big idea and a big mission and I think you’ll enjoy learning more directly from Guy.

QUESTION:           Guy, can you talk about how you came up with the idea for Knack?

It’s a combination of my own personal experiences. While I studied, I received my education in a certain field and I later realized that there was a mismatch between my education and my desires and interests.

My frustration was with the fact that once you studied something you’re actually placed into the bucket of that person is a lawyer, or that person can do only those things. It’s a very superficial approach that I was very frustrated with and led me to think how can I can communicate to the marketplace what my capabilities are and what my potential is in a way that is not tied to my education. My potential is much deeper and captures my education, but my education is really a small subset of my potential.That’s what inspired me.

QUESTION:           It feels like a guy that today whether it’s a consulting firm using a case study and testing cognitive skills or whether it’s IBM testing the skills of a potential database administrator, that these tests do not measure whether someone has the personality traits that are needed to succeed within a certain role. Is that the way to think about it?

That’s part of the way, yes. What they’re looking at is skills in terms of knowledge and in terms of actual hard skills. Skills can be acquired and developed very quickly with knowledge being tangible and available and accessible, so I think that targeting specific skills is really missing the big picture. The big picture is how do you get the person that has the capacity both intellectually, emotionally, socially, and in terms of personality to perform very well, and performing very well will differ from one context to the other. It might be performing through innovation, or performing through customer service, or performing through strategic work and thinking in an office.

QUESTION:           Got it. I played your first game called Wasabi Waiter and it feels a little bit like Diner Dash, but there’s a lot more going on in the background. How are you able to tell from this appearingly simple game deep personality traits around who I or who you are?

The relationship between your personality traits and your behavioral traits and how you play the game works in a number of directions. The game starts with you, the player, identifying and recognizing emotions and reading emotions of others and then preparing them and serving them dishes. But there is a big component of multitasking, there is a big component of optimization, there is a stream of micro-decisions that the player has to make over the course of the game, and there is dealing with an interesting cognitive load, mental load throughout the game, and there is openness to experience and exploring the game space, and many other things that are going on in this game.

QUESTION:           Is it grounded in academic research data?

Our work is built on very rigorous science that is part psychology and part behavioral science. An important point, however, is that our technology differentiates people in ways that psychologists have not even been able to label yet. If you take a comparison to the biological DNA of a person, many genes have not been labelled yet so have not been identified by science. Our games enable us to get insight and to measure and differentiate people of all dimensions and personalities, characteristics and traits but have not been given names or have not been identified or recognized by scientists, by behavioral scientists, but those differences still carry indications for what the potential of the person is. So, in that sense we’re going above and beyond the current state of the art of behavioral science.

QUESTION:           So the devil is often in the details here, and I’m curious. Have you… and it’s very early, early days, but have you looked at kind of how your games perform versus what has been used today for employers? Or how are you planning to look at that over time?

We have tested that. A few points that are relevant in that respect. We know that many very sophisticated and thoughtful employers have been using personality tests like the Myers Briggs, which was developed in the 1950s. We know that the Myers Briggs actually has huge problems.Self-report instruments such as Myers Briggs are subject to what is called presentation bias. The person answering the questions in most cases is aiming for what would be the right answer to maximize the chance of that instrument providing a profile of the person that would be of interest to the employer.

So, there are many other biases that go into how we approach and the data that we provide in answer to those questions. Our games and our technology actually eliminate all those biases, eliminate anxiety, and put people in a neutral natural environment. People are behaviorally tuned into the game, but they are not tuned into questionnaires or interviews or something like that. This is not a natural behavior for people. It’s not a natural behavior in the animal kingdom more generally. If you look at humans and others in the animal kingdom that are comfortable playing games, games are part of how we communicate, socialize, initiate values, teach things and share information. That is the power of games.

So, when we look at how our technology is doing relative to the current instruments, this is a very different paradigm. It is a quantum leap. This is something that is a massive fundamental departure from anything that was available prior to that, and the best way to look at that is a revolution in measurement. Our technology introduces into the space and domain of human potential and behavioral data what an MRI introduces into the world of medical imaging. It provides an unprecedented insight and visibility into the deepest layers and dimensions of what makes a person human.

QUESTION:           It’s interesting because human potential isn’t fixed. Traits like persistence, grit, and curiosity can be affected over time, especially at younger ages, so how do you think about that within the context of these games? Are there other measures like persistence, like grit that should be taught within schools? Does Knack play a part in it? Can you talk about kind of the educational K12 components of what you’re doing?

Absolutely. You’re right in pointing out that certain behavioral traits like mindset and disposition can be affected and changed over time, as a result of intervention, educational or other. The value of KNACK in the education space is providing an ability for students, for kids, for parents, for teachers to start measuring and to start quantifying those things. Once you start quantifying things you can also start quantifying and see a measure of progress, or a measure or change, and measure the effect of intervention.

If you don’t have the tools that enable you to track those things, you won’t be able to figure out the efficacy of any intervention. For example, what is the difference of one curriculum versus another, or if you put a key in an advanced program versus a regular program? So our technology integrated into the K12 space will enable teachers, students and their parents to get insight into what is the potential of the person? Where is that kid right now? What might be the right fit for that person in terms of curriculum, in terms of the type of school, in terms of focus on education material, but also in terms of developing and acquiring new fields and strengthening different personality traits? So, the potential of KNACK goes well in advance, far in advance of a person going into college or seeking a job. It really can go all the way to a very young age, and the younger people can start playing games. That’s really how far it can go.

QUESTION:           I realize every career path has different traits important to longterm success, but when you look at the key traits needed to succeed in today’s knowledge economy, what does the research bear those out to be?

The research shows a number of things that drives long-term success, and one of them is the ability to process large volumes of information and the ability to think at that higher level of analysis, but equally so is the ability to learn in a job because the pace of change in business and education is very rapid. Back in the industrial revolution, the state of things was pretty stable.

In our age, there’s not really value in people continuously doing the same thing. It’s the ability to adapt, the ability to process large volumes of information, the ability to integrate that and adjust and adapt and learn.

QUESTION:           It sounds like there are a lot of potential applications for the technology. So as a business, where do you start?

We’re currently starting at working with companies that employ early entry level talent, graduates of colleges and universities, and helping them realize what are the predictive signatures that make for longterm success at performance on the job and also for leadership and innovation. The flip side of that is where we are focusing on working with schools and universities on using the Knack technology first to admit students and then to select the student into programs, but then also to help them figure out their optimal match with the job market. So, we work both with schools, universities and employers. The next step for us is going to be the K12 space.

QUESTION:           It’s interesting because when you think of college admissions in particular where tests like an SAT can give unfair advantages to kids who have access to private tutors etc., do you think that Knack is a way for your top schools to find those diamonds in the rough who haven’t had that same access or opportunities but have the potential to achieve at the same level?

Absolutely. I think that the SATs and other kinds of tests disproportionately advantage people who have access to tutoring. So how do you level the playing field. This is not a problem limited to the U.S. – it’s a global problem. If you think about colleges and universities, the selection problem and the problem of figuring out what does the behavioral makeup of the high performing graduate look like, this is not very different than the problem that employers face in terms of what is the behavioral makeup of a successful employee in one role or the other.

QUESTION:           Can you talk a little bit about business model? Is it a software as a service type of business model?

Our business model is not software as a service, it’s actually data as a service. Our products are not the games. The games are part of the technology, part of the interface, part of the experience, but the product we are selling are data products. Different data products have different value, and the value differs based who is the consumer and how elaborate the data is, so the business model focuses on extracting value from the data product for the buyers of that data.

QUESTION:           Got it. That makes sense. Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want people to know about KNACK?

I think we touched upon some of the key things. It is important to note that in testing our product with some companies and pools of students at different universities, we know we already have very solid proof that the technology can very finely differentiate a very broad spectrum of behavioral traits, including the capacity to be creative and to innovate, and can actually predict academic achievements of students as measured by their GPA.

So, we already have solid data that proves the capacity of the technology to discover the unique behavioral footprint of the person and also to discover the predictive signatures of what makes a successful student, or what makes a successful employee – a knowledge employee at a professional service firm or a successful engineer. We already have that data and our goal now is to scale this and collect more data. The more data we have, the more insight we will have.