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Mediocrity Rules

Mediocrity Rules

| On 02, Jun 2019

Darrell Mann

Does anyone remember Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy story of the Golgafrinchans and ‘Ark B’? Just in case you’re not a British person growing up in the 1970s, the Golgafrinchans were a race that got sick of the mediocre people in their midst: “telephone sanitisers, account executives, hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives and management consultants.” (Reference 1)

The Golgafrinchan leaders convinced these mediocrities that some sort of doomsday was looming and that they had to get off the planet in a big spaceship. This spaceship was the ‘B Ark’. The B-Arkers were assured that the rest of the Golgafrinchan population would follow in the ‘A’ and ‘C’ Arks. The A Ark would contain all the excellent people, Golgafrinchans at their best: scientists, artists and such. And the C Ark would contain all the people that did the actual work.

Of course, the supposed A and C Ark people never left because the doomsday story was a cunning ruse. The Golgafrinchan leaders thought they were being clever by getting rid of an entire mediocre, useless third of their population. But then, in an ironic twist, the A and C people are wiped out in an actual Doomsday event. One triggered, in true Douglas Adams fashion, by a disease that spread through unsanitary telephones.

So, as it turned out, only the B Ark people actually survived. A case of survival of the mediocre. Then, by way of a final twist, Douglas Adams’ coup de grace sees the B Ark landing on Earth. And that we are now the living descendants of the B Ark people. We are, in other words, evolved from mediocrity. Which would explain an awful lot.

Or, at least it would if we dig a little bit deeper to understand that there are two different kinds of mediocrity. One type that we might think of as ‘soft’ mediocrity, and one that we might think of as ‘hard’. Most of Adams’ examples – telephone sanitisers, management consultants, etc – are the ‘hard’ version of mediocre. ‘Soft mediocrity’ is all about mediocre performance in domains where A-Ark excellence is actually possible on one end of the performance spectrum, and error-free correct, reliable C-Ark useful performance is possible at the other. A mediocre chess player, or a sloppy assembly line worker, for example, both exhibit soft mediocrity, because both excellence and error-free play are achievable and meaningful.

Hard mediocrity, on the other hand, is performance in domains that are open and messy. Domains like ‘telephone sanitization’ and ‘management consultancy’ where there is no prevailing notion of excellence or correct, automatable low-end performance at all. Although he doesn’t make the hard/soft distinction, ‘hard’ mediocrity include all the domains author David Graeber characterises as “bullshit jobs” in Reference 2.  There is only one way to be a telephone sanitizer, account executive, middle manager or TV producer: a mediocre way.

You may be wildly successful and make a lot of money in these domains, but your success has little or nothing to do with meeting clear standards of excellence or error-free functioning. You may pursue some sort of Zen-like ideal of unacknowledged excellence, but if you do, it will seem arbitrary and even eccentric to everyone around you. The point of these jobs is mostly optionality. And mediocrity is the rational performance standard in such domains.

These domains fundamentally do not support a native spectrum of performance where excellence is meaningful, because nobody really cares enough, and because the boundaries are too messy. And, here’s the important thing: what creates excellence is not that people are good at something, but because people care enough to be good at something. That they have ‘skin in the game’.

On the other end of the A-C Ark spectrum, what creates repeatable, error-free performance is not that people are good at something, but that the definitions are tight enough that “error” is well-defined, and people care about the errors.

That the Earth might be populated by the descendants of the B-Ark was first brought home to me when I was asked to conduct a number of TRIZ workshops with the Treasury branch of the British Government. I didn’t really know why they had selected TRIZ, so when I first encountered the group of thirty of so senior civil servants, one of my first questions was ‘what would they normally do whenever they encountered a problem?’ I thought I’d hear expressions like brainstorming and system-analysis and value-stream-analysis. Instead, I got silence. At first I thought it was just too early in the day to expect people to interact. Or maybe they hadn’t heard me. After I’d allowed the silence to extend into the embarrassment zone, I thought I’d better start giving the delegates a few clues. Where we ended up was that about 10% of the people in the room had heard of brainstorming. It was almost like the Treasury had deliberately employed people who showed precisely zero interest in creativity and innovation. Now, one argument might then go, maybe we don’t want creativity in the Treasury. I would have some sympathy with that view, but over the course of the next decade gradually encountering other parts of the Government, it became clear that ‘being creative’ was not good for your career.

If the Earth as a whole isn’t populated by B-Ark survivors, in my experience of the British Government, and the senior leadership teams in most of the organisations I visit, very definitely is.

And this is a problem from an innovation perspective.

Not least of the reasons being that, as Douglas Adams’ parable reveals, the B-Ark people are quite resilient. Once they take the reigns of an organisation it takes quite a lot of effort to displace them. Something like (fingers-crossed) a societal crisis… of which there seem to be quite a few brewing at the moment.

I often find that thinking through a situation in 2×2 matrix term is beneficial. Partly because it forces some creative thinking to find the right labels for the four different quadrants, and partly because it helps identify the key contradiction to be solved. Here’s how I think Adams’ Golgafrinchan society works as a 2×2 matrix:

Figure 1: Golgafrinchan Society As A 2×2 Matrix

A part of the creative thinking challenge here is recognizing that, because there were only three arks in Adams’ parable, we’re left with a gap in the model. Who are the, bottom-right, high-expertise-high-(hard)-mediocrity members of society?

It took me a while, but I’ve finally concluded it is the person who decided to gain some theoretical expertise and then successfully did so. It is the college graduate. The person full of book knowledge, and empty of a realistic knowledge of how the world actually works: high ‘expertise’, high mediocrity. Once I’d made that connection, it then became possible to plot a typical life trajectory. The naïve young graduate starts in the bottom-right quadrant and then follows the blue arrow:

Figure 2: Typical Life Trajectory

Graduates inherently get recruited by B-Ark people, because these are the people that work in HR. The poor, gullible graduates, once they become ‘employees’, quickly learn that if they are to survive, the need to become B-Ark people too. They realise the work they’ve been given is bullshit work and turn off their knowledge accordingly. A lot of graduates, in my experience, decide to stay here. If they don’t, they migrate into the C-Ark world. Where they quickly learn that, if nothing else, being on the C-Ark is better for your mental health. At least you get to go home at the end of the day safe in the knowledge that you’re now contributing something that is actually useful to society. C-Ark people also get to appreciate not only how the real-world works, but how they might help create something better. They need to build a different kind of expertise, and they need to put some skin in the game. Once these realizations appear, our rapidly greying graduate now has the possibility to join the A-Ark. Where they will be in a tiny minority. No doubt frustrated at what they see over in the B-Ark…

…the B-Ark, being the place where the money is. Or the easy money at least. If you’re looking for work-life balance and want a materially-rich life, the B-Ark is pretty much the place to be.

From a societal health perspective, this is not a good thing. It is the reason citizens of the United Kingdom currently find themselves living through the running joke that Brexit has become. B-Ark politicians negotiating B-Ark solutions (‘Brexit means Brexit’). The sting in the tail – the killer sting in the tail – is that Adams’ parable tells us the B-Ark population is the only one that survives. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution talks about survival of the fittest. What the Golgafrinchan story reveals is that, for the most part, ‘fittest’ seems to correspond to those that are the most mediocre.

How’s that for a candidate good contradiction for A- And C-Ark citizens to work on? The mission is clear. We need to build an Ark. An Ark for all the B Ark people. And then we need to tell them about the coming Doomsday…


  2. Graeber, D., ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’, Allen Lane, May 2018.