Why average is the enemy of innovation

I love this image. Thank you to @robreetz for sharing it.

It has helped me to connect the dots between The End of Average, which I have been reading on and off, and the excellent #IMMOOC Twitter and You Tube Live conversations about the Innovator’s Mindset that George Couros has been leading over the past 3 weeks.

The End of Average is making me realise how pervasive comparing things to the average is in my life, and how easy it is to assume that the average actually describes some sort of useful metric. In the image above if we average out the hills and valleys in the lower picture, I am pretty sure we would get the nice flat landscape in the top one. But by no means does the top picture help the poor person in the lower picture navigate the obstacles in their way. There is a story in End of Average about the US Air Force running a comprehensive study of pilot sizes in an attempt to find an “average” cockpit size, only to discover that the “average” measurements they found didn’t describe a single one of their pilots. The “aha” moment for me when I saw this picture was the realisation that often when we try to implement new innovations in schools we automatically assume that there is an “average” path to success that will work for most people.

The End of Average describes 3 principles that need to be adopted in order to fully leverage the individuality in an organisation, and I think these principles are relevant to any discussion about promoting innovation in schools. The first principle is the “jaggedness” principle, which is an understanding that none of us can be described by a one-dimensional ranking; we all have many unrelated “jagged” dimensions. The second principle is the “context” principle, which is beautifully illustrated by the illustration above, where the “context” of the vision on top does not match the reality of the poor person in the bottom situation. In many  #IMMOOC conversations, the importance of leaders understanding teacher’s context has been mentioned as an important ingredient of supporting teachers to be risk takers and innovators. The third principle is the “pathways” principle, which asserts that there are many pathways to the same end, not one “average” one.

As I listened to the 4th #IMMOOC Live episode while doing dishes I kept having to stop to dry my hands and write down quotes about leadership behaviours that encourage innovation. The two quotes that stuck with me were:


It can be so tempting to try and tell people what you think they should do, and share your “expertise”. But I think leaders need to recognise that their “expertise” is a related to their jaggedness, and context, and that each teacher needs to be supported to find a pathway that works best for them. This can only happen though asking questions and listening.  I also think it is also important for leaders to let go of a desire to reach a goal in a linear fashion, as that almost always leads to top-down directives. Encouraging and empowering teachers to move towards a common goal or vision, while also following their own pathway that respects their jaggedness and context is going to be messy. But in the long run in will be much more effective.

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