Beat the Average, Not the Sum

In The Difference Between Big Companies and Small Companies, I briefly quoted the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who was talking about an incident in which he was helping the California school board choose a set of science textbooks.  Feynman had given a poor review to a book that others has praised.  Here’s the whole story, which you can reflect on when considering whether your best ideas are good enough to compete against the work of a bigger company’s team:

The man who replaced me on the commission said, “That book was approved by sixty-five engineers at the Such-and-such Aircraft Company!”

I didn’t doubt that the company had some pretty good engineers, but to take sixty-five engineers is to take a wide range of ability–and to necessarily include some pretty poor guys!  It was once again the problem of averaging the length of the emperor’s nose, or the ratings on a book with nothing between the covers.  It would have been far better to have the company decide who their better engineers were, and to have them look at the book.  I couldn’t claim to that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!

I couldn’t get through to him, and the book was approved by the board.

— from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” (Adventures of a Curious Character)

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