The Power and Danger of the Bell Shaped Curve

The Bell Shaped Curve (BSC) is one of the most powerful statistical tools for driving quality and consistency in many human endeavors. Used correctly, it improves the reliability of critical equipment; increases the consistency of vital processes; and reduces the costs of many of the products we use every day.

Danger arises when the same BSC is used to manage the selection process for our employees or the projects we choose to pursue. Flexible organizations rely on a full spectrum of compatriots to make the organization flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of the marketplace. Innovation requires a broad portfolio of projects in order to discover the breakthroughs necessary to stay consistently ahead of the competition. Eliminating variation by applying the BSC incorrectly destroys flexibility and innovation.

Broad diversity is the key to flexibility. Great organizations staff their organizations with people from across the entire BSC. They recruit aggressively and make personnel decisions based on the impact they will have on the diversity their people bring to the company.

Unfortunately, economic pressures are playing havoc with ongoing diversity. Companies have made extensive layoffs a part of these tough times. It takes great insight and discipline to execute these reductions in a way that maintains diversity and the flexibility of the organization. Most companies reduce their workforces by eliminating the people on the tails of the BSC; preferring employees closer to the overall mean. After all, these people are more homogenous and easier to manage. This limits the ability to react to diverse situations.

Improper use of the BSC can also destroy innovation by limiting the projects considered for development. Great innovation requires a broad project portfolio in order to find the best opportunities. Breakthroughs are found at the tails of the BSC – the very projects unlikely to be sustained through the usual review process. The most successful projects are impossible to predict at the beginning of the innovation process. The music industry discovered this decades ago and maintains a portfolio of artists to insure that the breakthrough acts are under contract when they hit it big.

The need for a broad project portfolio is just as essential in other companies. The trick is to try many things in ways that are fast, cheap, and driven by enthusiastic champions. Small expenditures can go a long way to support projects brought forward by enthusiastic fans. The fans can move quickly in order to see that the most promising projects move forward. Life and death become organic outcomes from the movement of these fans as they support some projects and ignore others. Use this process to stay out of the judgment game. Remember, breakthrough success is impossible to predict. Why set yourself up for failure?

An enthusiastic outlier!

Be sure to use your creativity to let the BSC help you. Find and nurture leaders on the tails. You need them to build flexibility. Keep an active portfolio of diverse projects in motion. Breakthroughs happen unexpectedly. Be prepared for the unexpected and take advantage when it happens!


2 Responses to “The Power and Danger of the Bell Shaped Curve”

  1. August 21, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Very true. As some reasonably far out on several tail-ends (including the high-IQ one), I have often been frustrated by how what I bring to the table is not valued or, very often, causes a negative reaction in various managers, who are more intent on keeping the cover beautiful than the content valuable. Too many would prefer to have a flock of sheeple doing what they are told over having someone who points out overlooked problems, suggests more efficient solutions, or similar.

    A related point is that the more average are usually cheaper—and too many hirers and firers fail to consider that employees are not fungible.

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