Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence

Abraham Wald, in his youth

Image via Wikipedia

Abraham Wald, an Austrian-Hungarian born mathematician applied his statistical skills to improve the armor of aircraft returning from battle during WWII. His approach was insightful. He examined where the  bullet holes and damages were on returning aircraft and recommended that armor be added to all the places where bullet holes and damage did not exist. His reasoning was simple. The aircraft that returned could take the flack where the damage was. The aircraft that did not return must have been hit elsewhere.

In our own analytical work, we sometimes ignore the lack of evidence, which is sometimes more important than what we can quantify. In the context of product development or leading change or any other endeavor, what are the things you cannot see? This is an indicator. Are we fixated on counting and measuring damage, or are we also thinking about why we don’t see any? Just because we cannot see it does not mean it is not there. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The metrics game is one area where we are vulnerable to make the mistake of counting what we can at the expense of identifying what is  important. If you are coaching a team, are you looking for the absence of evidence in addition to it? Are you looking at evidence from both perspectives? The notion of False Dichotomy and Confirmation bias are errors in thinking triggered, among other things, by absence of evidence or ignorance of evidence.

One of the challenges of leading change is to look for things which are not part of the model, not part of the picture, to focus on outliers and anomalies. The damage to the aircraft is relevant only because the aircraft returned safely. It’s the dark side of the moon and the iceberg below the surface. We cannot see it, but it is there.

What is it that you do not see?


Sources of Complacency

Leading change without a Sense of Urgency… is it possible? John p. Kotter lists 9 sources of complacency. They are:

  1. The absence of a major and visible crisis.
  2. Too many visible resources.
  3. Low overall performance standards.
  4. Organizational structures that focus employees on narrow functional goals.
  5. Internal measurement systems that focus on the wrong performance indexes.
  6. A lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources.
  7. A kill-the-messenger-of-bad-news, low candor, low confrontation culture.
  8. Human nature, with its capacity for denial, especially if people are already busy or stressed.
  9. Too much happy talk from senior management.

So now what? Kotter recommends BOLD action. He suggests:

  1. Link 50% of top executives’ pay to significant quality improvements.
  2. Find ways to get all the external customer complaints in front of everyone every week.
  3. Sell the jet and corporate headquarters and move into a building that looks more like a battle command center.
  4. Set an objective to become #1 or #2 or we are forced to liquidate and shut our doors in 2 years.
  5. Set your business targets so high they cannot be met doing business as usual.
  6. Stop measuring sub-unit performance and narrow functional goals.
  7. Use consultants to help force the honest conversations that need to happen.
  8. Use company newsletters/communication to provide not only good news, but business reality.
  9. Bombard people with information on these future opportunities for capitalizing on these opportunities, and on the organization’s inability to do so.

Over-managed and under-led cultures fail to do this according to Kotter.

Why You Need to Fail

This is a great video from Derek Sivers on the importance of failure for learning. Thanks to my good friend Catherine Louis for pointing it out. What resonated with me was the whole notion of fixed mindset versus growth mindset. A fixed mindset person believes that talent is innate and there is no point in trying to get good at something you are not “naturally” wired to do. A growth mindset person believes that anyone can learn anything given motivation and effort.

You can imagine the implications for a business leader who has worked hard to rise to the top and is told everyday how great she is and the fear of failure drives out the growth mindset and replaces it with a fixed mindset. We learn most and grow most by making mistakes. We need a growth mindset to do it. And we need to be willing to try experiments. The video is just under 15 minutes long. Grab a coffee (or a martini) and enjoy!