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What’s so special about average?

My kids used to be in a bowling league. Bowling is all about the averages. Some games are good, some are bad; if your average keeps improving or increasing, consider that progress. The score matters; and as long as the general trend is up, you’re in great shape.

In bowling, inconsistencies in your performance can lead you to not even achieve your average every time you play. But the average doesn’t tell you the reason behind the inconsistencies or what the issues were with your game.

That experience and the weekly focus on the average got me thinking about what’s so special about averages. I have two trains of thought when it comes to this topic:

  1. the metrics angle, and
  2. the “being average is boring” angle

In some ways, they go hand in hand.

The Metrics Angle
On average, our retention rate is up 5% in the region this quarter.

That’s not very helpful. Which states or cities were up? Which were down? How did different segments fare? What were the percentages by month? Which weeks were better/worse? And why?

The average temperature in Phoenix is 87 degrees.

Sounds pleasant enough, but that’s not very helpful, either. I know that the temperature in Phoenix can reach the 120s in the summer; and in the winter, I know temperatures can be half of that. What are the extremes, and do I want to endure either of them?

If you’re reporting your metrics (satisfaction, effort, etc.) as mean scores, they can be meaningless because they are just that, a mean or an average, i.e., an aggregation of many different ratings divided by the number of responses. The same mean can be achieved with different sets of numbers, e.g. the average of 9+9+9 is 9, but then so is the average of 10+7+10. Because of that, it’s actually more meaningful to look at the distribution of ratings/responses to get a real understanding of your customers’ diverse sentiments. If you report means, be sure to look at distributions (and comments), too. Otherwise, you might miss some nuggets hiding behind the mean, like, are there outliers and why?

The other thing that can happen as a result of only looking at the mean is that it often becomes just a metric, a number to chase. But as I pointed out, you can achieve that metric in many different ways. So bypassing the mean and looking at the distribution (and the verbatim explanations) allows you to take the focus off the metric and put it on the customer, again, the varying sentiments across the response base.

Perhaps these quotes help to illuminate the flaws of averages:

Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top. -John Wooden

Never cross a river that is, on average, four feet deep; you will drown. -Simon Lyons

If you have one foot on burning coals and one foot in a bucket of ice water, on average, you are comfortable. -Unknown

Averages just don’t give us enough detail. About the series of individual responses that comprise them. Or about the why.

“Being Average is Boring” Angle
Nobody wants to be average. Right? Being average means that you’re, well, middle of the road. Mediocre. Some brands are better; some are worse; some are average: a level that is typical of a group, class, or series; a middle point between extremes (per Merriam-Webster).

Typical. That doesn’t sound unique or remarkable or memorable. It sounds, well, average.

Nobody raves about average. -Bill Quiseng

What does it take to consistently be above average? Hard work. Persistence. Listening to customers. Understanding your customers and the jobs they are trying to do. Understanding their differences, needs, and desired outcomes. Doing something unique and special for your customers that’s specific and unique to your brand. Every day.

The best are just a little above average, but above average all the time. -Shep Hyken


By definition, it is not possible for everyone to be above the average. -Jim Collins

We know that not everyone will land there, at that level. But wouldn’t you rather be on the positive side of average than just average? Or worse, on the other side?

I am only an average man but, by George, I work harder at it than the average man. -Theodore Roosevelt