A Curveball for the Bell Curve

We all know what a bell curve looks like. Many of us also use it when we make decisions. We expect, for instance, that a group of students will be made up of a few geniuses, a few dunces and a lot of pretty average folks who fall in the middle.

But maybe you can’t take that to the bank—or at least not to the office. When it comes to talent or productivity, people often don’t distribute themselves on a bell curve. There are simply superstars and everybody else.

“Rather than describe how humans perform, the bell curve may actually be constraining how people perform,” National Public Radio declared this week, as it reported on the findings of researchers Ernest O’Boyle Jr., of Longwood University’s College of Business and Economics, and Herman Aguinis at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

In their study of productivity in 198 groups of people “ranging from physics professors and Grammy nominees to cricketers and swimming champions,” they found that superstars accounted for most of the success of the group. “The vast majority of the others in the group,” Aguinis explained, “were actually performing below the mathematical average.”

It’s a variation of the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule. Peter Drucker wrote about this often, and he observed that measurable phenomena in nature (height of people, temperatures during the year, etc.) tend to distribute themselves along a “normal” bell curve.  But social phenomena, like the things we do for a living, don’t work that way.

“In a social situation a very small number of events—10% to 20% at most—account for 90 percent of all results,” Drucker wrote in On the Profession of Management. “A handful of customers out of many thousands produce the bulk of the orders; a handful of products out of hundreds of items in the line produce the bulk of the volume; and so on. This is true of markets, end uses and distributive channels. It is equally true of sales efforts.”

Image credit: Tang Yau Hoong

There are many implications to this. One, as we’ve pointed out before, is that you should focus on making your stars into superstars, not on making the other 80% better. But another could be that most workers are neither superstars nor cut out to be superstars, and any manager must take that into account when hiring and promoting.

Neither businesses nor service institutions can “depend on superstars to staff their managerial and executive positions,” Drucker wrote in People and Performance. “If . . . we cannot organize the task so that it will be done on a satisfactory level by people who only try hard, it cannot be done at all.”

Does the idea that there are only superstars and below-average players change the way that your organization should be managed—and, if so, how?