Statistics & High Performers: Studying the Outliers

One of the first things we teach people in economics, statistics, and business is how, in a statistically valid way, do we eliminate the weirdos. How do we eliminate the outliers so we can find the line of best fit? Which is fantastic if we are trying to find out what coffee to serve at the canteen… but not if we are interested in potential, or happiness or productivity or energy or creativity, where instead of understanding the high performers we’re instead simply creating the ‘cult of the average’.


As a scientist/engineer myself, as many of you are, we know we strive to make the uncertain certain. We are trained to solve problems and questions in a way that delivers a level of tangible certainty. For example if I asked a question like, “How fast can a Grad learn how to master project management?” we as scientists/engineers/business people change the answer to “How fast does the average Grad master project management?” we then do a thorough survey/study, gather the data, eliminate the outliers, find the line of best fit and then we proudly tailor the recomendations, course, environment and support towards the average.
But in a world of competitive business surely this is a dangerous practice? As we cant merely be average, we have to be an exceptional outlier of a company, and thus we need employers who are also high performers and outliers.
Positive psychology posits that if we continue to study/engage with and aim for only what is merely average, we will remain merely average. So unless we aim for the outliers, not the average, we will fail to instill a high performance culture where outliers don’t just feel like the ‘weirdos’ we love but don’t choose to understand.
But if we want the line of best fit to catch up with the outliers we have to know WHY the outliers are where they are.

And its not about the characterstics of WHAT they are, but WHO they are, and WHY they are this way…

We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that young man to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? If we acknowledge that high performers in the company are there because certain opportunities they have had, and we can figure out how to give that to all, then imagine how may outliers we would have? Imagine how the line of best fit would rise?

Because we so profoundly individualise success to just the outliers, we miss opportunities to lift others up…We are too much in awe of those who succeed and most of all we are much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean businesses and ALL of us in them—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.

So perhaps instead of focusing on the average what we need to intentionally do is go to the outliers and say, why? Why are some of you high above the curve in terms of intellectual, ability, creativity, energy levels, resiliency in the face of challenge, sense of humor? Whatever it is, instead of deleting you, or simply noting you are different and then moving on, what I want to do is study you. Because maybe we can glean information on what makes these high performers outliers. What opportunities have they have that have made them better? What experiences have allowed them to stand-out? If we do this we can learn from those that are exceptional, not just how to move people up to the average, but how to move the entire average up in our companies worldwide.
How do you think we need to capitalise on Outliers and raise performance culture? What makes you different? 

One thought on “Statistics & High Performers: Studying the Outliers

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  1. I like this. But i guess the question is who is responsible for moving away from the ‘average’ focus? How do we change this in the company?..

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