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Nuances Matter!

July 24, 2016

by David Savlowitz

As Charles R. Swindoll stated: “The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.” Perhaps the greatest coach of all time (in all of sports) is John Wooden, who shared his secret to his teams’ success: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” And recently, Dan Young, former EVP of Irvine Company, whom I had the honor of collaborating with, synthesized the mantra of my company Competitive Analytics quite eloquently: “Nuances matter.”

So what? Nuances matter. Now what? Well, the most quintessential question within the field of performance science is this: “Why do specific individuals and organizations achieve greatness, whereas others, who may work just as diligently as anyone else, remain in a constant stasis of mediocrity or “above-averageness”? The answer (or devil) lies in the details. But what are these elusive and mysterious details? What are these nuances? And which details matter most?

The word “detail” itself provides part of the answer. To “de-tail” something is to remove the back or bottom portion of something . . . leaving the inside open for inspection. And typically, the back or bottom part of something reveals the foundation, engine, or guts to the whole itself. Thus, first identify what or who is great, then understand in detail how this someone or something works, operates, runs, and behaves . . . not just at the surface, but at the core . . . and then replicate this greatness. Thus, “de-tailing” literally means examining the inside workings . . . and is a prerequisite to greatness (and ongoing requisite of sustaining greatness).

Thus, what is virtually unrealized by many is that the difference between good and great is so much smaller than most people imagine. If we apply simple mathematics, legends are only very small fractions better than the average. Let’s examine two examples:

Golf: Based on a distribution analysis of over 10 million golf rounds of data, the average golfer shoots an 86 or 14 over par1. To become a scratch golfer requires an improvement of 16.3%. Think of it another way. An 86 equates to an average of 4.7 shots per hole for an 18 hole round. Contrastingly, shooting a par 72 equates to an average of 4.0 shots per hole. Thus, a professional golfer averages less than one stroke per hole than the average golfer. Now let’s dig down a little deeper. The difference between Bubba Watson (the number one player in the world in terms of lowest average score) who averages 68.5 strokes per round is only 2.8 strokes better than the average PGA golfer (i.e. a very good golfer indeed!) averaging 71.3 shots per round2. This reflects only a 3.9% improvement! Put another way, the number player in the world only improves one stroke every 6 holes he plays versus the average PGA player. Just think of it . . . a 3.9% improvement means just one better drive, iron, chip, or putt every 24 shots makes a world of difference.

Baseball: Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest pure hitter in the history of Major League Baseball had a lifetime batting average of .3673, which means he was successful a wee bit over 36% of the time (which also meant he failed ~13 times for every 20 attempts). Now, if the “average” MLB player of all time bats .262 and the “All-Star” bats .315 (i.e. half way between an average hitter and the all time best), what’s the difference? The All-Star is able to create only a single additional hit more than the average hitter (OK, technically 1.06 hits) for every 20 at bats! And the legendary Ty Cobb was able to create only one extra hit (OK, technically 1.04 hits) better than the average All Star every 20 at bats. So, if your an average MLB hitter, a 5% improvement will make you an All-Star. And if you’re an All-Star, another 5% improvement makes you the greatest hitter that ever lived.

What’s the best way to go from good to great?

Amazon.com is replete with self improvement and business management books on how to become great, but unfortunately most miss the mark. Simply, analytics is the best way to identify, track, and achieve that 5%. Most people do congregate around the meat of the curve. Let’s face it, most people and organizations are either notoriously incompetent or painfully average. And candidly, it takes more than hard work to be better than good. The only caveat to this is this: We live in an unusually incompetent and mediocre society . . . an era I call a “left-skewed societal distribution curve” in which there is an overabundance of incompetence and mediocrity. If you were to graph our population it would reflect a unbalanced distribution curve where the left and center part of the population curve is fat and tall (and if you’re thinking of a double entendre here, fat = lazy) and where the “short tail of greatness” is shallow and short (and rare).

left-skewed societal distribution curve

But this is of great advantage for the people that want to be great, for as Billy Joel stated back in 1993: “I consider myself to be an inept pianist, a bad singer, and a merely competent songwriter. What I do, in my opinion, is by no means extraordinary. I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary. I actually know how to play my ax and write a song. That’s my job.”