Saturday, October 24, 2015

Performance, The Bell Curve and The Long Tail

I’ve always found it interesting that we tend to try and plot most everything on a Bell Curve. We talk about averages and standard deviations as though God ordained that all of creation must fit this pattern. We even try to simplify it further by forcing data points into quartiles. Or we talk about elevating the average. Lead, train and motivate those who are below average to average or better. And if you believe in “normal” distributions, there is a meaningful difference between those down in the 33rd percentile compared to those up in the 66th percentile.

But what if we’re not talking about the Bell curve. What if the outcomes do not fit neatly into a bell curve? What if force ranking people and performance into percentiles or quartiles doesn’t really make much sense. What if human performance isn’t distributed normally? Instead of looking like this:

What if it looked more like this:

What this says and what we tend to see in the real world, is not a Bell curve with significant deviation from the average, but a relatively flat line where there is not much separating all those people in “the middle”. In virtually any human performance related area of life, you will find a small number of exceptional individuals who are truly peak performers. Then it drops quickly and levels off until you reach the very end of the tail where the bad apples hang out. Within the top 20% there is a big difference. There is typically a larger performance gap between those in the top 5% and those in the top 15-20% than there is between that 15-20% group and those whom we would typically rate well-below average (whatever average means.)

In 2012 two college professors published the results of a study of over 600,000 individuals in different fields and concluded that, indeed there are a small number of high performers and a small number of low performers…the vast majority of people are in the middle and there isn’t much difference.( Dr. Herman Aguinis and Dr. Ernest O’Boyle’s paper was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Personnel Psychology. It’s worth reading and, in my opinion, squares with what we see in the real world. These comments from Dr. Aguinis are worth noting:

"All five of our studies suggest that organizational success depends on tending to the few who fall at the 'tails' of this distribution, rather than worrying too much about the productivity of the 'necessary many' in the middle."

The bottom line, according to Aguinis, is that everything about individual performance has to be re-evaluated so managers can identify and go after lead performers.

"These people will be desirable to outside firms, so success means thinking about excellence and improvement all the time, talking with top performers continuously to find out what they need to grow and advance," he said. "Rating them once a year, based on a bell curve, will send top performers -- and profits -- right out the door."

So what does this mean for those of you who are just trying to run a business that gets stuff from point A to point B? We’ll talk about that next time.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Alienation, Anger and Virtual Gangs

Another shooting rampage occurs and we search for answers. It makes sense to talk about better gun controls. And, we should be talking about security on school campuses, workplaces, shopping centers, theaters, churches and just about any place where large numbers of people gather and become easy targets. And we should be talking about violence in the media and violent video games. And, of course, we should be talking about mental health.

We can point the finger at guns and say that’s the reason the United States has more of these mass killings. But the fact is that we’ve been a “gun culture” for over 200 years. Why are there more of these events today than there were 20 or 30 years ago? What has changed? A lot. For generations families, churches and schools were responsible for teaching kids “how to behave”. Were there failures? Of course. The record is there. Mass murderers, serial killers and monsters of all kinds have been around forever. But, on balance, when families, churches and schools were doing their job; there were not quite so many alienated and angry young people walking around.

Most of these alienated and angry people end up with others who are alienated and angry. These groups have different names, but “gang” seems most appropriate. Whether the focal point is a neighborhood, a race, a lifestyle or a religion; there are plenty of gangs out there for the alienated and the angry. And we now have the “virtual gang” where the alienated and the angry can join and participate anonymously. These virtual gangs are the breeding ground for “lone wolf” killers. Here their complaints are heard, their anger fueled and their acts of vengeance encouraged. A “real gang” tends to direct its member to attack strategic targets and even their random targets tend to have a strategic purpose. The “virtual gang” that meets in a chat room has no strategy. It’s all raw emotion and fantasy. And for most of the members, that’s enough. Virtual venting, emotional masturbation if you will, is gratifying enough.

But increasingly, there are those who feel compelled to act. And in a culture where guns are the most accessible weapons of choice, mass shootings are the result. Gun ownership is not going away in this country. Regulations may become more restrictive and enforced more stringently, but guns are here to stay in America. And sometimes the wrong people are going to get their hands on guns. Just like “the wrong people” sometimes get behind the wheel of a car, practice medicine, get elected or have babies. Those institutions that were traditionally responsible for teaching us “how to behave” are broken. We now feed our kids self-esteem pablum and anti-anxiety medications. The cracks are getting bigger and more of our children are falling through. Some of them end up with guns. We may eventually find ways to keep them away from guns. And, in doing so, perhaps save some lives. But we are not addressing the real problems and ultimately those who are the most alienated and angry will find ways to strike back. There is probably already a “discussion thread” going on about it out there in some chat room.