Saturday, 23 January 2016

The End of Average - Todd Rose with Ogi Ogas *****

Averages are very convenient when used correctly, but even when dealing with statistics they can be misleading (when Bill Gates walks into a room of people who have no savings, on average they're all millionaires) - and it gets even worse when we deal with jobs and education. As Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas make clear, hardly anyone is an average person. Whether someone is trying to devise an aircraft cockpit for the 'average' pilot, define the average kind of person to fit a job, or apply education suited to the average student, it all goes horribly wrong.

If I'm honest, there isn't a huge amount of explicit science in the book (nor is it the kind of self-help book suggested by the subtitle 'how to succeed in a world that values sameness'), but scientific thinking underlies the analysis of how averaging people falls down, whether it's looking at brain performance or personality typing. What Rose and Ogas argue powerfully is that the way we run business and education is based on a fundamentally flawed concept that you can do the right thing for everyone by applying an averaged approach. This dates back to the likes of Galton, who believed that individuals had inherent capabilities and should be ranked and statistically managed accordingly.

Along the way, the authors demolish such concepts I have seen time and again as: selecting for jobs on having a degree; performance management systems that require a fixed distribution of high performers, average people and below average people; companies based around organisation charts rather than individuals; and education that simply doesn't work for many students. I was particularly delighted to see the way that they pull apart the ridiculous approach of personality profiling with devastating statistics that show that the way we behave is hugely dependent on the combination of individual personality and context - hardly anyone is an introvert or judgemental or argumentative (or whatever you like) in every circumstance.

The authors admit that the averaging approach was useful in pulling up a 19th century population that had few educational and job opportunities, but now, especially when we have the kind of systems and information we have, they argue that we should be moving beyond simple one-dimensional concepts like IQ and SAT scores and exam results and using multidimensional approaches that take in far more, and which enable us to build employment and education around the individual, rather than the system's idea of an average worker or student. Of course, there is more work involved that with the old averaging, but Rose and Ogas point out this benefits both the workers and the companies (or the educators and the educated). And they show that it is possible to take this approach even in apparently low wage, impersonal, cookie-cutter jobs like workers in a supermarket or manufacturing plant.

There are a few issues. There's an out-and-out error where they claim the word 'statistics' comes from 'static values' (it actually comes from 'state', as in country). And even the authors occasionally slip back into the old norms of success when, for instance, they refer to 'Competency-based credentialing [is that really a word?] is being tried out - successfully - at leading universities.' Surely the concept of a 'leading university ' just reflects the old norms of what constitutes success in education? And I think the practical applications of these ideas will generally be a lot harder than they seem to think - they have great examples of where a low-level worker is given the chance to make a change that benefits the company, for instance, but not of what do when someone makes a change that makes things go horribly wrong. Similarly they point out that individual treatment also risks dangers like nepotism - but not how to deal with it. However, that doesn't in any way counter the essential nature of their argument. Individuals work and learn and do everything better if treated as... individuals.

I really hope that those involved in business and education (and many other areas of public life) can get on top of this concept, as it could both transform the working experience of the majority and make all our lives better. I remember being horrified when consulting for a large company where pay rises were forced into a mathematical distribution - you had to have so many winners and so many losers, all based around an average performance. This kind of thing is becoming less common, but most businesses and education still has the rigid picture of averages and ranking that the authors demonstrate so lucidly is wrong and disastrous for human satisfaction. 

In reality, I suspect the changes won't come too widely in my lifetime. But I'd love to be pleasantly surprised. And I hope plenty of business people and academics read and learn from this book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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