“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” -Mark Twain
During the darkest days of the Second World War, Allied bombers were being shot down in alarming numbers. To address those losses, a study was commissioned to examine aircraft that had returned to base damaged by enemy fire. After studying where thousands of bullets had struck aircraft, a recommendation was made to armor areas that were being hit most frequently. This would give an aircraft the maximum protection without overburdening the airframe with unnecessary armor. The logic ran sound to the upper echelons of command, but they wanted a second opinion.
One might think top bomber pilots would have been consulted, but the military turned to statistician, Abraham Wald. In this world of numerical connections and probabilities, Wald was a rock star. Wald looked at the data sets provided to him and found the highest percentage of bullet holes were in aircraft fuselages and the lowest percentage fell on engines. The military wanted confirmation from Wald that the fuselages should be armored. Wald answered with a simple question: “Where are the missing bullets?”
No one understood what Wald was getting at and asked him to explain. Wald told them that they were examining airframes that returned to base and not ones that had been shot down. Therefore, a bomber could take hits on the fuselage and return home. The engines were where armor needed to be applied. The recommendation was put into effect, and bomber losses dropped significantly.
Great innovators fall in love with the problem they’re trying to solve before they fall in love with a solution. They objectively articulate their underlying assumptions and they test them relentlessly. They’re willing to fire their ideas if they are deemed implausible. Wald’s missing bullets illustrates that we must question our assumptions before seeking solutions and have the fortitude to speak up against flawed conventional wisdom.
Numbers Fib, Statistics Lie!: Accelerators
- List the potential areas of flawed conventional wisdom that you have in your business, work area, or project.
- What numbers or underlying assumptions in your business do you need to re-examine?
- What are the key metrics in your business that you need to be looking at on a regular basis to ensure your business is operating effectively and efficiently?
Dr. Jeff D. Standridge is the best-selling author of “The Innovator’s Field Guide” and “The Top Performer’s Field Guide.” He serves as Managing Director for the Conductor and Innovation Junkie, and teaches in the College of Business at the University of Central Arkansas. Jeff helps organizations and their leaders generate sustained results in the areas of innovation, strategy, profit growth, organizational effectiveness and leadership. Learn more at InnovationJunkie.com.