Survivorship bias: solving the right problem

We’ve heard this story before.

When the US military tried to reduce aircraft shot down by enemy fire during World War II, they examined the planes returning from their mission. After inspecting the bullet holes on the aircraft armors, their recommendation was to reinforce the damaged areas.

But statistician Abraham Wald noted that they were only considering the planes that survived; those that took damage and still flew back home safely.

This is known as survivorship bias.

Once they reframed the problem, the solution was clear: to reinforce the intact areas that showed the least damage, as this is where a hit would be critical — leaving an aircraft unable to fly back to base.

This is, in a way, a lesson about how misunderstanding a problem leads to the wrong solution. But it can also be about focusing on the wrong problem altogether.

Sometimes, in life as well as in work, we throw ourselves full force into solving a specific problem only to discover later that nothing’s changed. We may even make life-altering decisions that we believe will fix everything. Just to find ourselves in the same position as before.

There’s such a thing as the right solution for the wrong problem.

We might be misunderstanding the situation. Or mislocating the problem, misplacing it: thinking we’ve got a good grasp of it yet focusing on and coming up with a solution for the wrong thing.

Though it seems obvious, identifying the right problem is the most important part of problem-solving. And making sure it’s worth the cost of solving it.

Before giving our all to fixing what’s not broken, we need to make sure we’re dealing with the right problem.

Find the right problem first, and then throw yourself at it.

If this spoke to you, please consider liking it, leaving a comment or giving me a follow — even though I write these because I enjoy it, it’s always encouraging to know there’s someone on the other side.