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Aviation, Armor, and Abraham Wald

Aviation and Armor Are Important

During WWII, the United States fighter pilots had problems during their long missions flying over Europe.  Countless planes were shot down and those that returned were often riddled with bullet holes.   Armor plating could save many planes but the added weight made the planes much less efficient.  With more weight, the plane simply couldn’t fly far enough to complete the mission.  Without the armor, planes were doomed to suffer too much damage.

Engineers and aviation experts analyzed planes that returned from their missions and noticed specific commonalities about the damage sustained.  Often, these planes shared similar damage points on the wings, the tail, and in the fuselage.   The common thought was that these areas were where additional armor should be placed.

Aviation and armor explaining survivorship bias

The Uncommon Thought

The uncommon thought, held by Abraham Wald, then a professor at Columbia University, was the inverse.  Instead of adding armor to where the bullet holes were, Wald suggested the  armor should be added where there was no sign of damage.  The planes which were observed had returned from their missions after having sustained gunfire.   The damage was not severe enough to take down the plane.   But what about those planes which did not return?  Wald’s approach was that the armor needed to be added to where the bullet holes were not observed, because a hit in those locations would inevitably bring down a plane.  Those points were the weak points, the places of failure.

What Wald realized was the mechanics, pilots, and military leadership was suffering from Survivorship Bias;  the error of accepting data that passed a selection stage while overlooking other data that did not.  In short, by not recognizing the missing planes were part of the data and not considering the damage those planes sustained, the military came to the wrong conclusion.

Applied to Networking

Our experience in a business networking is arguably less life-threatening than aviation combat.   But the lesson in Survivorship Bias is still applicable to us.  How often have we seen a teammate receive an outstanding referral and wondered why they were “so lucky”?   Why does one member seem to close a substantial amount of business while we struggle to close opportunities?    Some people seem to always invite guests – but it feels incredibly difficult for us.    How come some people just seem to ‘get it’ and we just feel like we’re doing a terrible job?

The reality is that during our team meeting, we’re seeing a small portion of the efforts being made to maximize our membership.  When someone gets a permission-based referral, we witness the event;  but we have no idea how much leg-work went into generating that referral.  When someone has two or three guests show up, do we understand that our teammate personally called fifteen people to invite  them?   What we ‘see’ as success is often just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s a Net “Work”

The reality is that we can succumb to Survivorship Bias in this same situation.  We don’t see all the heavy lifting, the time spent researching, the calls, emails, and effort made.   We don’t know how many biz chats someone scheduled to learn more about a potential referral.   What we see at our meeting is merely the ‘fruit’ of all that labor.

It’s imperative that we, as teammates and members of the Two Twelve Referral Network, remember to take advantage of all the training, resources, tools, and opportunities that are afforded to us.  But it’s still a net “work” that needs the heavy lifting, the long-run focus, and the effort to make leverage that advantage.   Help ourselves and our teams by focusing on the tasks that make a difference, and we’ll soon be seeing the benefits we are expecting.