Being the best average or building a different scale

Photo by Kevin Dooley

I just finished reading Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce By Daniel M. Cable. While the book caught me by surprise, because it did not deal at all with what I thought it was going to, I found it to be an insightful book finally delivering a framework that connects “strategy” to “HR” or “OB”. This connection is something I was hoping all through my MBA to discuss but was disappointed again and again how our professor failed to make. Cable takes the idea of “people are our company’s most valuable asset” and connects it to actual concepts like strategy, measurement and execution, taking it out of the fluffy-pink wrapping-paper into actual deliverables and business concepts like marketing, competitive advantage, measurement and costs.

What I loved most about this book is its approach that emphasizes two main concepts that I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog as well. Averages and best practices on one hand and priorities on the other hand.

First, Cable really emphasizes that trying to be the best in same way like everybody else is insane. This is the gist of this idea:

Nowadays, most organizations claim that their people are their competitive advantage. But most organizations build workforces that really are not very different from their competitors’. Most organizations, it turns out, treat their people just about the same as most other organizations. In fact, companies deliberately benchmark their people practices to the industry average. Not surprisingly, there is nothing particularly distinctive about most organizations’ workforces and nothing the organization produces is particularly noteworthy from a customer standpoint—nothing very strange. Put these together, and what situation do you have? You have organizations hoping to achieve extraordinary results with a solidly ordinary, normal workforce.

Yesterday, I read Paul Hebert great post asking people to call BS on normal distribution:

But… what if your organization doesn’t follow a normal distribution?  Then everything following that assumption is just wrong. I’m thinking that the “normal” distribution is the wrong thing to look at when designing influence, reward and recognition programs.  I’m thinking we’ve been looking at this all wrong for 100 years.

And what he wrote in reply to a comment of mine on this post:

Averages and standard deviations are the tools of six sigma and minimizing variability. I’ve preached that those types of tools don’t apply in the human world – we are infinitely variable – and that is where our value is. It’s not in getting everyone to be the same, act the same and perform the same – it’s getting people to act, perform differently – and the power law curve is the perfect idea in that instance.

Hebert’s post connects the idea of best practices and averages. People are unique and special. Trying to make them all fit into some “average person” company plan is insane. This is why many of the most successful companies out there actually don’t take on people who already work in the industry (one great example, is southwest airlines). If you want to be different, you have to act different. And this has to happen deliberately. The same goes for companies as wholes. You have to plan to be deliberately different. Again, from Cable:

If your workforce systems are just like everyone else’s, it would be silly to expect any unique value or special sauce from your workforce. Serviceable, standard, normal systems that do not make employees say, “Wow!” result in a serviceable, standard, normal workforce that does not make customers say, “Wow!” Your methods for dealing with your workforce should be definitely out of the ordinary and unexpected; unusual or striking; slightly odd or even a bit weird. Your people systems need to be as strange as the workforce you hope to create.

This is the myth of best practices: You will probably not be able to imitate your way to greatness. Your own strange systems have to be created around the obsessions and unique abilities you need from your workforce.

It’s really unlikely that you can build a strange workforce if your organization deals with the workforce the same way as other organizations do. It is delusional to expect your employees to be extraordinary and differentiate your organization if your employee systems are basically the same as other organizations.

Second, business in general and strategy in particular is about making priorities. Your true ability as a manager, a leader, an innovator, as a winner, is best shown when you have to make difficult choices that have tough consequences. Here, again, a few quotes:

When the going gets tough and you get busy, it will be hard to be strange without discipline because strange demands a lot more energy than just being like everyone else.

All jobs are not created equal. Nothing personal, but some jobs are more important to executing your strategy than other jobs. You already know this in your heart, of course. But it is currently not in vogue to say it out loud or do anything about it. Most companies want to treat all employees as if they are somehow equally important, all unique flowers to be cultivated equally… The heretical take-away here is that leaders should prioritize jobs and invest the most time, energy, and money into the positions where a strange workforce has the most leverage to make their strategies go

Getting a competitive advantage needs to be hard, or it wouldn’t be a sustained competitive advantage. The fact that it is hard to create a distinctive system that brings together the right group of people who are strangely focused on what customers care about means that organizations succeeding in this domain will gain a competitive advantage. These organizations will rise to greatness because this is the foundation of value creation, it is hard to do, and it is hard to imitate…

And I ask you. What are the tough choices you made in the last day, week, month or year to become special? What did you give up in order to be different? What did it cost you? Are you just trying to be the best average or are you trying to create a whole new scale? These questions are equally important on the personal and professional levels. I know I am trying to answer them every day. What about you?


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