Wrong on Average

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The popularity of Blackjack arises from two fairly uncontroversial facts:

  1. It’s an easy game for even novices to learn to play;
  2. Blackjack gives players the best odds for beating the house.

Given its simple rules, all the possible combinations of a player’s hand against what the Dealer is showing can be mapped out and memorized beforehand. There only two variables that Chance gets to play with: the Dealer’s down card, and the next card coming out of the shoe.

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This level of precise pre-planning is only possible because of one fact so taken for granted that literally nobody thinks about it: the cards are static. Yes, variables create uncertainty because they are unknown, but once those cards are revealed, they are no longer variables. When you hit with 16 and the Dealer showing 7, and you get a 5, you never lose. 

But what if the cards were dynamic? What if every time a new card is released from the shoe and dealt to a player, every card already on the table changed? What good would your spreadsheet of every strategic possibility be as a decision tool if nobody’s cards were finalized until the dealer’s last card is dealt to herself? It’s tough to win at blackjack when your Ace-Jack combo turns into a 3-Jack after you decided to stand.

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In his newly released book The End of Average, Todd Rose (@ltoddrose) shines a spotlight on a century-old assumption embedded deep within nearly every fabric of our modern society: that individual human behavior, characteristics, potential, and productivity can be averaged together, prescribed, replicated, and predicted. Just as there is no such thing as a single “average” snowflake or an “average” human fingerprint, there is no such thing as a single “average” human being. It seems a simple and obvious observation on its face until you follow Rose down into the details of just how pervasive this Industrial Revolution era assumption really is. Consider just a couple organizational practices that are so commonplace as to make it almost jejune to even point them out:

  • Performance reviews that reduce people to a single numerical measurement guided by a doctrine that dictates these scores must follow some version of a grading curve;
  • Prescribed “career mapping” tools that dictate the trajectory the average employee with a given set of educations/credentials/experience/role should expect to follow.

As Rose points out, the problem with these deeply embedded norms of practice is one tiny little detail: humans aren’t static. In fields as diverse as childhood motor development, learning to read, colon cancer treatment, and depression recovery, the normative pathway derived from the average of a statistically significant sample of study subjects failed to be useful to actual people the vast majority of the time. Rose calls this the “pathways principle:”

there is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development — biological, mental, moral, or professional … a powerful concept from the mathematics of complex systems called equifinality [states] in any multidimensional system that involves changes over time — like a person interacting with the world — there are always multiple ways to get from point A to point B.

If you are a leader operating in a static environment where the variables are few and the cards are fixed, then planning your choices based upon a spreadsheet of known/likely options will give you pretty decent odds of winning. On the other hand, if you lead people who have to interface with a dynamic market full of other people — real, live, highly individualized, emotional, sometimes irrational human beings — then perhaps it’s time to rethink your reliance of Industrial Age dogmas about simple statistical representations of complex, dynamic people and systems. To start, go read Rose’s book.