The Questionable Law of Averages

The dog days of summer offer up all sorts of opportunities… some of which fall into the guilty secret category…..

So, loathe as I am to admit it, there I was watching breakfast TV when one of the standard requirements of August news bulletins popped up; the annual tension-fest that is students finding out their A Level and GCSE results.  It all feels a little voyeuristic to be honest… even if you know which didactic, little parable-ish tales the director is going to choose to tell us.  There she is… the smiling superstar who gathered A* (or 9’s now)’s like ripe blackberries off a bush.  Oh and look, there’s the disappointed boys standing around not really knowing what to say, glancing at their grades hoping that somehow they will change. And yes, a quick glimpse of the anxious parents, desperately trying to remain cool but with all sorts of butterflies in their stomachs.

But what does it all mean, this hard-won collection of grades and numbers?  And I don’t mean the obvious… yes, they will be influential in university applications and the like… but what does it really tell us about the nature of true talent?  Are all those with stratospheric grades destined for the top (wherever that may be) or do other influences take over?  I think we all know the answer to that one…

One of the other opportunities afforded by the summer months is the hard-won chance to catch up on some reading.  A book I read recently made me reflect on the nature of ‘grading’ talent and , frankly, the uselessness of some of our approaches in the workplace.  “The End of Average” by Todd Rose examines the development of much of our thinking about grading and the assessment of talent by looking at the mathematical heritage of group classifications.  Based on Rose’s analysis – average rarely means anything meaningful.  So a ‘meets expectations’ lawyer or a ‘satisfactory auditor’ similarly means nothing.

Through a variety of case studies and examples Rose presents a compelling case that no-one is ‘average’. Everybody is made up of a multitude of individual characteristics. If you take an average of each of them (height, shoe size, length of fingers etc), you won’t find any individual who is average in all respects. This is known as the ‘jaggedness principle’. In the 1940s the Jaggedness Principle forced the US Air Force to refit fighter planes with adjustable seats and other fixtures. The cockpits were originally designed around the average range of 10 body measurements taken from a population of 4,063 pilots. But because no single pilot met all those criteria, they ended up with a seat which actually didn’t fit anybody.

The question I think this poses for all CHRO’s and Talent Directors is what do we really mean when we say a professional is ‘good’ or ‘above-average’?  Isn’t the truth that we have doubled down on seeking simplicity when trying to measure one of the most complex issues in the workplace – that is, what do we really need in order to solve this problem, execute this task or sell this service? Just like the US Air Force we have opted for a supposed average with a semblance of science behind it when the reality is that each problem, each task and each sale require a complex and ever-changing assessment of what skills are needed on this occasion, in this context and at this time. A simple regurgitation of what happens ‘on average’ is almost certainly not the right answer.

Now practicality must of course kick in at some point.  No organisation could seriously contemplate assessing each project and its required skills framework from scratch on a continuous basis.  But in the same way that while we can intellectually acknowledge that there are different types of intelligence – artistic, musical, athletic, cognitive etc – we need to accept that in the complex world in which we operate there will be different skills and competencies required to succeed and they will change from project to project.

So, congratulations and good luck to all those students who have just received their results.  But please let’s not be blinded by scores, grades and averages.  Let’s look behind the results and ask ourselves what we really need to be a success as an organisation, a team or an individual.  Then we can really liberate potential.

Steve Lee, Partner, Aretai LLP

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