CategoryEssays

Average is the Enemy

This post introduces a recent essay on the danger of using averages for making decisions or evaluating performance

Mathematically, the average tells us the arithmetic mean; it gives a sense for where the middle lies within a group or between extremes. But averages, like stereotypes, are incomplete and dangerous as a basis for decision making. Rather, when making decisions or evaluating performance, embrace your natural curiosity and dig in. 

Move past the false shortcuts offered by averages.  Embrace variability. 

Forest management expert Dr. Barry Shiver once told me that the motto of intensive forestry is, “identify variability…then exploit it!” We add value by investing in the best soils and highest performing trees on one end, and through dealing quickly with mortality and disease at the other end. When it comes to managing or buying an asset, we want to understand both the forest and the trees.  

Some might argue that averaging and generalizing facilitates analysis and the testing of ideas about how things work. Okay, this makes sense. “On average”, timberland in markets with lots of mills have higher values. On average, taller people are more able to dunk a basketball. But averages do not determine value, performance or skill. They offer a general starting point.

Click here to read the essay.

What is the Question?

This post introduces a recent essay on mobilizing teams and making decisions during difficult times.

When faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, we seek solid ground for making decisions. For novel and contentious issues, following our “gut” or simple frameworks may prove insufficient. What can we do to filter distraction and organize thinking in ways that move us forward? 

When uncertain, define an answerable question. Then answer it and take action.

In difficult situations, I often start by clearly defining the question. Good questions clarify our context, risks and options. Through shaping “positive” questions we build a process for developing new information and next steps. These questions help us distinguish the important, relevant and actionable from the unsubstantiated and uncontrollable, while balancing the desire for insight with the need for action.

Click here to read the essay.