Back in World War II, US bomber crews faced a daunting statistic—on each mission they went on, there was about a 50% chance they would get shot down and not make it back.
The US Army Air Force knew that any small improvement in that statistic would make a big difference—and they set out to add more armor to the bomber aircraft to help protect them. But armor adds weight to the bombers, which minimizes their endurance and payload, so they needed to be judicious in determining where it was added.
Thankfully, they had a ton of data at their disposal to help. They knew where damage tended to accumulate from all the aircraft that successfully returned from missions—near the tail gunner, along the wings, and down the fuselage. Adding armor to those places should help, right?
That’s exactly what many commanders wanted to do. But this was an incredibly foolish idea, as mathematician Abraham Wald pointed out.
These commanders had given into survivorship bias. The data that they had was incredibly useful, but it was from the planes that made it back—not the planes that were fatally shot. The data showed not where armor needed to be, but where a plane could get hit and still survive. To give the bombers a better chance, Wald reasoned that armor needed to be placed where these surviving aircraft hadn’t been hit.
Giving into survivorship bias would have cost more lives if Wald and his team hadn’t been there to reveal it. And when you start looking for it, survivorship bias is everywhere. It can even plague a sales team—especially when you’re in analyzing sales metrics and data.
When we focus on the survivors in Sales Ops, we often miss the other side of the equation. Here are just a few examples:
- It often feels more rewarding to focus on the deals we’ve won—but the real lessons often come from the deals that we’ve lost. As this research from Rick Reynolds highlights, Why Companies Lose or Win Strategic Sales, the real reasons for lost deals are rarely what you think they’d be.
- As this diagnostic by Dan McDade shows, Five Signs You’re Missing Sales Opportunities, many sales teams end up ignoring two-thirds of their sales opportunities simply because the leads they contacted weren’t ready to buy that quarter. The leads that survived the first round got attention and the rest get left behind even though they’ll be viable later on.
- We even end up focusing on the sales metrics that survive—not because they’re the right ones, but because they’re the ones we’ve always paid attention to. As Jason Jordan’s research shows in Sales Metrics Sales Leaders Should Be Managing, out of a sea of 306 potential metrics, only 17% actually measure something that salespeople can take real action on.
As these examples show, it’s so easy to miss the big picture when we only see the survivors. Sure, it’s rare in Sales Ops for lives to depend on seeing the data correctly…but small improvements can improve sales results–just like they can save more bombers. And often, those small improvements will come from the data that’s missing or ignored—not the data you have.