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In the 1950s, A fairly unusual be-spectacled and slender Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels was tasked to solve one of the biggest problems in the US Air Force. A botanical loving man, not the kind of person you would associate with the testosterone-drenched lads you would expect of aerial combat, was at the helm of attempting to stop jet-fighter planes from falling from the sky.[1] 

One retired pilot once said, “You never knew if you were going to end up in the dirt,” At its worst point, 17 pilots crashed in a single day! 

Lieutenant Daniels had a simple job: Measure the body dimensions of 4063 pilots. Armed with a major in physical anthropology from Harvard, the Air Force believed that the design of the cockpit can help to improve the dismal rate of keeping the planes in the air. 

However, Lieutenant Daniels had suspected a theory no one in the Air Force had even crossed their minds. Holding on to his private conviction, he was all set to find that out. 

He began to measured the average of 10 physical dimensions of the pilots, which were believed to be most relevant for the the cockpit re-design, including height, chest circumference, and sleeve length. This formed the dimensions of the “average pilot”, with a 30% range given for leeway. So for example, even though the average pilot height was five foot nine, the range was five seven to five eleven. 

The consensus among the air force researchers were that the vast majority of pilots would fall in the average range. Besides, these gentlemen were preselected because they appeared to fit the average sized.

The numbers were crunched. Lieutenant Daniels now was able to test out his hunch. Even he was stunned. Out of the 4063 pilots, not a single pilot fit within the range on all ten dimensions. ZERO

In other words, if you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it fit no one.

In 1952, Daniels went on to publish his findings entitled “The Average Man.”[2] The recommendations discussed was radical at that time: The environment needed to fit the individual, not the “average” person, because the average person didn’t exist. 

This was when things began to turnaround. Armed with a new guiding principle of individual fit, 10 different physical dimensions of 4063 fighter pilots later, a new and radical idea was about to be born. However, airplane manufacturers balked at the possibility, stating that it would be too expensive and impractical to customise, but to everyone’s surprise, aeronautical engineers were able to innovate both cheap and easy to implement engineering solutions.

This, gave birth to the ADJUSTABLE SEATS. Along with adjustable foot pedals, helmet straps and flight suits, pilot performance began to soar.

While this may seem fairly obvious to you and I, given that all automobiles are fitted with adjustable seats these days, we fail to recognise the toughest part of this US air force story: letting go of old ideas. Indeed, learning new ideas is valuable. But only if we are willing to challenge our assumptions. 

Fit the Individual, Not the Average

So the question is, how do we design our therapeutic approach to be calibrated for the individual person, instead of trying to fit our approach to the “average” person, which doesn’t exist? Go one more step further. How do we invest our time and development efforts to learn deeply on a personalised way, instead of going to a workshop that teaches a particular way of working, and then told to “adapt” it to our setting and style? 

What if we flip it the other way around? What assumptions need to be un-done or at least called into question? What does it really take to create “adjustable seats” in our therapeutic approach?

[1] Check out a highly recommended book by Todd Rose, The End of Average.
[2] Here’s a link to Gilbert Daniels 1952 article The “Average Man.”
Photo by Enrique Ortega Miranda

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