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If you’re not familiar with survivorship bias, it’s a form of selection bias that can lead to misplaced optimism because failures are overlooked and/or have little to no voice in the conversation.

A clear example of survivorship bias comes from World War II. When reviewing their aircraft, the US Navy determined that the most commonly damaged areas requiring armour plating were the wings. Weight dictated they could only add protection to a portion of the aircraft.

Mathematician Abraham Wald argued to leave the wings alone and prioritise welding armour plating on the engines, nose and cockpit. They had hundreds of planes return with holes in their wings but they didn’t have many with holes in these other areas. Wald argued that this was because all the planes that had been shot in the engines, nose and cockpit were currently at the bottom of the sea. His logic prevailed; more planes came home with holes in the wings…but they came home.

In business, for many reasons, we can be guilty of unintentional selection bias. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve performance and therefore naturally seek examples of others for inspiration.

Managers are asked to seek empirical data to support business cases for recommendations and therefore often look for data to validate, as opposed to challenge, action plans.

When studying business performance, aspects of successful businesses are often dissected, however, failed businesses are generally excluded from these studies. Results of the perceived impact of certain attributes or strategies may be deemed of higher value because the failed examples are excluded.

Another classic example of this is in construction and architecture. The common perception is that historical buildings were more aesthetically pleasing, however, we largely base these perceptions on the buildings that were loved, have been restored and remain today, not those that were abandoned and ultimately destroyed.

How do we avoid survivorship bias?

The first step is acknowledging it exists. The more you understand it, the more you will avoid it. If you’re using data to glean insights, give yourself the time to stand back and interrogate the perspectives your data may not be giving you.

The second is to get the full picture. While the failures can be harder to track down, try and spend equal time thinking about what not to do versus what to do. The result of doing this means your decision-making will be far more rounded. That’s not to say looking at examples of failure will change your trajectory, they may simply provide inspiration for subtle adjustments or contingencies.

We recently featured an article ‘The unexpected benefits of reflection and tips to inspire positivity’. One of the key areas of focus in this article was how to balance reflection on wins and failures. Read it here.

Understanding survivorship bias is equally valuable in your personal life. If you seek out personal development, don’t just research the traits of successful people, seek out the cautionary tales. You’ll learn just as much from these as those who potentially misdiagnose their own success, or worse yet, fail to admit the role that luck and timing played.

At Be Challenged, we’re often engaged to help teams see a different perspective on the problems their department or business is facing. One of our feature programs to improve problem-solving is Chain Reaction. Chain Reaction requires teams to not only solve their own challenge but consider the interplay with other teams. It builds the behaviour of seeking a wider perspective to avoid unintentional oversights like survivorship bias.

If you’re interested to hear more about Chain Reaction, check it out. Or, get in touch with us here.

Thanks for reading.

Kingsley Seale

Joint Managing Director, Be Challenged

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