Survivorship bias

During World War II, the Allies reviewed bullet holes of damaged aircraft returning from Germany during the Second World War.

Survivorship bias: The story about Abraham Wald and the WWII airplanes |  Doctor Spin

They wanted to strengthen the planes, to be able to withstand the battles even more.

What should they recommend to their superiors?

Their immediate decision was to rebuild and reinforce areas of the plane that had more bullet holes. Theoretically, this was a logical deduction as these were the most affected areas.

But Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, realised their data came from bombers that survived and that those that were shot down were not part of their sample: he saw that the red dots represented places where the plane could sustain damage yet still return home.

Wald’s brilliant thinking steered an alternative solution—and saved many lives.

The areas that needed to be reinforced were the places where there were no red dots because those were the places where the plane would not survive being hit.

This cognitive theory is called survivorship bias. And it happens when we look at the things that have survived when instead we should look at the things that don’t.

Are you making a logical error?

Where are you taking bullets and where should you focus?

A consulting lesson from The Littlest Hobo

Growing up, I fondly remember school holidays watching The Littlest Hobo.

The TV show was about a stray dog who travelled around, moving from town to town, befriending and helping people in need. And despite the wishes of the many people whom he helped to adopt him, he preferred to go his own way and would head off once the situation no longer called for his attention.

Each episode was a lesson in selflessness and individuality, in the face of conformity.

You’re a consultant, moving from project to project, building relationships and serving stakeholders. Offering expertise and objectivity, in the face of cultural norms and constraints. Doing your best work, before moving on to the next task once the assignment is complete.

Leave your stakeholders fully capable and remembering you fondly.

How to make an impact

  1. Start with the empathy to listen and see the opportunity. Not a meeting-room imagined one, not “How can we launch our product?” but rather, “What would give real meaning here?”
  2. Focus on the minimum marketable product: “What is the smallest improvement that will produce a tangible outcome for your customer and still make it feasible for you to do?”
  3. Match the worldview of the people you’re seeking to serve. Work collaboratively with stakeholders to craft a contribution worth making, meeting a perspective to resonate with.
  4. Make it easy to change. If every stakeholder influences one other person, within a short while, you’ll have more supporters than you can count.
  5. Earn, and keep, the trust and acceptance to support the people you serve.
  6. Look for places to immerse yourself. Instead of finding customers for your product, increment your product to find your customers.
  7. With each step along the way, field the forces of change as people shift towards their goals.
  8. Be there, consistently. Act with generosity, and iterate the parts that make a difference.