The Danger of Average

by Dan Gregory & Kieran Flanagan

It turns out we are all living a delusion.

Ask a room full of people “Who here considers themselves to be less than average competence when compared to the rest of the room?” (something we regularly do ask audiences) and you might be lucky to see a handful of hands go up. Obviously a statistical irregularity!

What’s more, in employer surveys, the executive of an organisation regularly rate themselves far higher, in terms of performance, than do their employees or shareholders.

Back to our audience question: half of us, statistically, are below average. Half of the national population is below average intelligence. And half of every industry is below average competence at what they do (something to think about before you book your next flight with a discount airline).

Now, we’ve always understood that there are those who bring up the bottom end of the deviation chart in any given field of endeavour, but what we rarely consider is just how average, average actually is.

Now, while average is an artificial construct, where we distribute sample sizes equally along the infamous bell curve (before standardisation, average often sits well below what where we might expect it to sit), it does inform us what we might reasonably expect in terms of behaviour and decision making.

The problem is, even with this tendency to standardise or “pull average up”, it’s still nothing to brag about.

If we assume the most common mean of 65% to be representative, what it indicates is that the average human being gets one in three decisions wrong! And it’s actually worse than that as this assumes that all decisions are equally weighted – that “Should I pick the kids up from school?” is equivalent to “Do you want fries with that?”

“So what has all this got to do with business, brands and leadership?” you might ask.

We’d suggest, rather a lot.

Part of what this delusion we live in costs us is that we design strategies for ideal conditions (which rarely show up), with consumer communications where we speak more to ourselves (somehow assuming that we are representative) and hold expectations for our staff that essentially set them up to disappoint us.

Most critically, we fail because we don’t build average into our strategies – let alone failure. We expect more of average than average is typically capable of delivering or even interested in delivering.

Now this all sounds a little judgmental, but what if the opposite is the case – what if expecting someone to live up to our expectations, to always be their “best selves” to quote the self-help genre, is more of a judgment than working with who they actually are.

Increasingly, what our research, and that of other behavioural strategists, is finding is that our capacity to work with human nature, to design our processes of engagement around who people are and how they behave is far more effective than simply trying to persuade them to change and adopt our view of the world.

In other words, being easy to engage with, placing behavioural change in the path of our existing behaviour (versus trying to get our behaviour to shift in order to achieve change) and most importantly, designing for average in our thinking and making failure more difficult are critical considerations for every business.

See Dan Gregory at the 2015 Marketing Summit on Thursday 4 June at Rydges Southbank, Brisbane. For more information visit Click here to register.

The Australian Marketing Institute gratefully acknowledges the support of the 2015 Marketing Summit Sponsors


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