David McRaney has a great post on survivorship bias. It includes the story of the US Air Force in WWII trying to figure out where to add armour to their bombers the better to survive enemy attacks.
Their instinct was to look at the returning planes and see where the most bulletholes appeared and reinforce those bits. But a statistics whizz called Abraham Wald pointed out they were missing the key point: they were looking at the survivors. Getting shot in those areas was not bringing them down. It was likely the areas that were not bullet-ridden on the surviving planes they needed to look at.
Here’s how he sums up the problem of survivor bias:
Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning. The problem here is that you rarely take away from these inspirational figures advice on what not to do, on what you should avoid, and that’s because they don’t know.
The temptation to worship success, and scrutinise it for its secrets, seems almost innate. But what a relief it is to let it go. This bit also caught my eye:
Entrepreneur Jason Cohen, in writing about survivorship bias, points out that since we can’t go back in time and start 20 identical Starbucks across the planet, we can never know if that business model is the source of the chain’s immense popularity or if something completely random and out of the control of the decision makers led to a Starbucks on just about every street corner in North America.
Reminds me of what I called the Southwest Paradox. And also of this experiment reported by Roger Lewin in his book on complexity. Success turns out to be the product of many complex causes, and our human urge to simplify usually masks this.
McRaney goes on to share Richard Wiseman’s research on luck:
Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out.
One of Viv and my little improv handout cards is Notice More, Change Less. I keep relearning the value of paying more careful attention to the small stuff that is happening in the moment. A tiny shift in the here and now may have more impact on the future than all the grand strategic planning in which we humans love to indulge. It’s one of the reasons I like the process we’re currentl labelling Action Storming. Time and again we find ways that tricky situations yield not to expert analysis but to apparently small leaks learnt through rapid experimentation.
Hat tip: Tim Kastelle’s tweet