Skip to main content

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.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…