There is no Such Thing as an Average Project! (Part 1)


There is no such thing as an average project, they are all different.

DUH!  of course!

We may think that but, much of our lives and careers are shaped and guided by a society that prizes an “Average” approach.

An approach that is geared for the 19th century industrial world and not the 21st century knowledge age.

What do I mean by that?

Well a couple of well-placed 3-letter acronyms may answer that.

  • GPA
  • BMI

A Cautionary Tale

Todd Rose in his book “An End to Average”, recounts the tale of Gilbert Daniels, an Airforce scientist at Wright Airforce Base in 1950.

For several years, the Airforce had been experiencing a series of unexplained aircraft crashes and accidents. They encompassed multiple aircraft types and flight situations, which made equipment failure unlikely.

The aircraft cockpits were designed from pilot’s physical measurements gathered in 1926, and it was decided to repeat the exercise to see if pilots had had changed in the intervening years.

Newbie Lt. Daniels was given the task of gathering the anatomical data from over 4000 pilots.

Having gathered the data,

he performed the normal function of calculating the average for each of the measured dimensions.

Although new to the Airforce he did have some experience of handling anatomical data.

As a Harvard undergraduate he measured the hand dimensions of his classmates and found that no two hands were the same and that no actual hands matched the “Average Hand”. (This was perplexing, because 1940s Harvard was not a bastion of diversity).

As an Airforce Lieutenant he found a similar result, no actual pilot matched the average pilot, in all 10 of the dimensions.

He then calculated a range around the average of the 10 dimensions, and again none of the over 4000 pilots matched.

Even when he reduced it to only 3 dimensions only 3.5% of pilots matched.

His conclusion was clear, no pilot matches the average, and by designing any equipment for the average, it will fit no one.

What had changed since 1926?

The aircraft of course – this was the jet age and aircraft were now faster and more complex. In the older and slower biplanes, it was not a problem that the cockpit layout did not fit the pilots, because they had more reaction time and less complexity.

But in the new generation of aircraft it was a huge problem.

The solution is blindingly obvious to us, but it was not popular with the aircraft manufacturers, make things adjustable.

The Airforce had a serious life or death situation and it was impeding their efforts to keep America safe in the recently initiated Cold War and forced through the changes.1

We now think nothing of getting into a car and adjusting the seat in 3 axes setting the mirrors etc.

But we quite happily accept the use of average in many other aspects of our lives.

How did we get here?

A Belgian Astronomer

It all started with a frustrated Belgian astronomer called Adolphe Quetelet.

In 1830 his dreams of being the Astronomer Royal, were thwarted by political unrest, so he transferred his mathematical skills to the field of social science.

When calculating the speed of a celestial body, astronomers would time its transit between two lines on their telescope lens. To improve accuracy, they would repeat the measurement many times or use the measurements of others and then take the average.

Quetelet used this method on data he had obtained regarding the chest size of a group of Scottish soldiers, he then calculated that the average chest size was 39 ¾”.

The early 19th century was a one of growing bureaucracy and was overflowing with this type of unfiltered data. However, it was of little use as no one knew what to do with it.

Quetelet changed that and soon he was averaging any data he could get his hands on.

As with the astronomical calculation, Quetelet, believed that the “average” was the ideal, and any deviation was, just that, “a deviation from normal”.

He invented the Quetelet Index, which we still use today.

We call it the Body Mass Index (BMI).

This is a convenient rough and ready, Go/No-Go, way of assessing an individual’s health.

It is not however always helpful.

My son, who was a rugby player and competed in strong man contests, fell foul of the BMI when taking an employment medical. His BMI was well outside the allowed limits, despite being in exceptionally good health.

This necessitated further testing, despite the fact that doctor clearly understood why he was outside the limits.

This is the tyranny of “The Average”.

On the Origin of Rank

For our next step to Average we go to England and to Francis Galton a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Galton was an admirer of Quetelet, but he did have one fundamentally different idea.

He did not believe that the average was the ideal.

He introduced the concept of rank, with average in the middle.

Above AverageEminent
Below AverageImbecile
Simplified version of Galton’s Ranking

This led to our now normal idea that to be above average is good and to be below average is bad. The average was no longer the ideal, it was simply mediocre

He was of course in the Eminent group.

The One Right Way

The ideas of Quetelet and Galton were quickly utilized for practical purposes.

In the early industrial revolution factories were still run in the old way defined by master craftsmen, and each craftsman would have his own ways of working.

But these ideas would change all that.

Enter one Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was the first guru of scientific management.

Taylor reviewed the industrial process and saw much that could be improved.

He broke the work down into small, simple tasks or sequences and provided exact instructions in how they should be performed. Now there was no need to hire highly skilled artisans and change the factory processes to meet their concepts.

You could now hire average workers to perform small parts of the process and give them clear instructions on completing the tasks.

Now the workers had to conform to the system.

This was cheaper and more efficient, if not very stimulating for the individual.

 It now became necessary to have individuals who did not do the work, but planned, controlled, and monitored everything. “The Manager” was born.

Mmmm… Planning, Controlling and Monitoring, sounds a bit PMBOKish

Just One More Step, and Your Path to the Average-side will be Complete

Where were all those average workers going to come from?

Late 19th century educators looked and learned from our three “Averagarians”, and as schools became more common, they started to reflect the average world.

The curriculum was tailored to producing the average worker, and the school day was divided into segments which were announced by the use of bells, just as it would be when the pupils joined the workforce.

Just like Taylor there was one right way:

  • All pupils were taught the same subjects
  • In the same way
  • For the same length of time

There was a score and pupils were ranked on where they fell in relation to the average.

If you were “Eminent”, then the system would offer further opportunities:

  • Special Tuition
  • Ability to attend High School
  • Possibly the option to work as a manager
  • Ability to enter University (Although this was still based on your family’s financial means)


By the beginning of the 20th century the averagarian system was well established in much of the world. Although it was clear that the “Average”, did not work for everyone, and was literarily disastrous as in the case of cockpit design, it was convenient.

Factories had there “Time and Motion” people and seconds were paired off work processes, and greater efficiencies achieved.

This system worked very well for the industrial west and has now been adopted almost everywhere.

However, we now need to reexamine this system in the light of the information age and make the necessary changes.

Top Lessons for Project Managers

Project managers did learn from this just like industry and education they implemented Average systems and methods to improve the project process. The profession has now recognized the pitfalls as well as the benefits of the system and in the next post we will examine some of the alternatives and necessary changes to the Averagarian System.

Sign in next week for the Ergodic Switch.


1The End of Average


  • The end of Average – How we succeed in a world that values sameness: Todd Rose
  • Dark Horse – Achieving success through the pursuit of fulfillment: Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rashid N Kapadia

    An unusual and useful perspective. Good to know.
    Nice article. You cover a very wide range of topics, bring history to life and relevance.
    Looking forward to more.

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