• Michael Kennedy

Thinking The Unthinkable

Updated: Aug 10

A quick study in unconventional wisdom

Artist: David Bryant

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as in escaping from the old ones.” ~ Economist, J.M. Keynes

During World War II, the Navy had a problem. They were losing a lot of aircraft and needed to reinforce their planes with more armor to keep them safely in the sky. After much analysis it was determined the planes were taking the most damage to the wingtips, central body, and elevators. And therefore, the Navy engineers believed these were the areas needing the greatest reinforcement.

But a statistician named Abraham Wald saw the problem differently. He thought the Navy should reinforce the armor of the planes’ nose, engines, and mid-body. His thinking was counterintuitive. It made no sense to the engineers, after all it was the wingtips, central body and elevators suffering the most damage.

However, this was not the case, as Wald pointed out. The planes getting shot in the nose, engines and mid-body, were being destroyed specifically from damage to these areas, and these planes weren’t making it back to be analyzed.

"There is no prescribed route to follow to arrive at a new idea. You have to make the intuitive leap." ~ Stephen Hawking

The Navy thought it had discovered where its planes were suffering the most damage. Instead, it had discovered where its planes could take the most damage without being destroyed. It wasn’t looking at the whole problem. This became known as Survivorship Bias.

This hypothetical pattern of damage of returning aircraft shows locations where they could sustain damage and still return home safely. Aircraft being reinforced in these areas would be a result of survivorship bias because crucial data from destroyed planes was being ignored.

Abraham Wald’s unconventional thinking was truly creative thinking.

It’s not just finding a slightly better version of an existing solution, but looking at something everyone else looks at, and seeing something no one else sees. To do that we need to free ourselves of our prejudices, opinions, and conventional wisdom, as Wald did. With this new clarity we can think the unthinkable and discover new and creative solutions.

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”~ Albert Einstein

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