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.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …