Leadership & Counter-intuitive statistical thinking

March 9, 2019

During WW11 allied forces were losing a lot of planes to German anti-aircraft fire. So, the logical move to counter this was to add armor to the planes. Planes of course have weight limits so the next question became where to place the armor. 

Naturally emotions and disagreements ensued about where to place the armor. To help answer this question it was decided to go view as many aircraft as possible and document where the majority of the bullet holes where. From that evidence the immediate and emotional answer was simple……just put the armor in the areas that attracted the most fire and took the most hits. 

While the answer seemed simple and obvious it was dead wrong! The problem wasn’t their logic, it was that they were looking at the entire problem through the wrong lens. They needed a paradigm shift in their thinking. The planes they were viewing were those that made it back. Regardless of the volume or concentration of the bullet holes, those planes had survived the attack. The planes that had NOT made it back held the relevant info. Without those planes to view, the answer becomes extremely counter-intuitive, but also statistically simple. Place the armor in the areas that (on average) DO NOT have bullet holes. These are the critical and fatal areas for attack. 

‘Counter-intuitive statistical thinking’ seems like an incredibly difficult skill to master, (and one that I fail at regularly by making emotional decisions). But another, less scientific, lesson exists in this story. That is to simply take time to pick our head up out of the weeds and ensure we are viewing our work, our plan, and even our world through the correct lens. I tell my team from time to time, we can be the best machete swinging jungle choppers there are, but if someone isn’t climbing a ladder once in a while to look out and make sure we are chopping in the right direction, or even the right jungle, then it’s all for nothing! That’s the job of a leader.