Monthly Archives: June 2015

Where The Bullets Aren’t (or – how Survivorship Bias and WWII Mathematicians can inform your L&D strategy)

 by Randy Sabourin

In order to continually improve our Learning & Development designs and deployments we frequently look to successful participants, members of our team, or the industry to try to understand what learning strategies we can glean from their success. This is a strategy I am often asked to execute when creating coaching or sales training programs for clients. Certainly there is a good deal to be learned from the most successful in any organization, however isolating them as the only source of ‘best practice’ is a very limited and potentially dangerous perspective. There are critical lessons to be learned from those who fail and those who may have moved on. It is sometimes difficult to recognize situations where Survivorship Bias affects our decision making negatively.


I find the stories about very smart people using math, technology, and brainpower to defeat the enemy during WWII fascinating. One of the lesser known stories that has offered valuable business insights for me is that of Abraham Wald.

Abraham Wald was a brilliant Hungarian mathematician, grandson of a Rabbi, son of a kosher baker, who was forced to immigrate to the United States in the late 1930s as Nazi Germany’s influence made life very difficult. Wald was invited to Columbia University and fought his war as part of the Statistical Research Group (SRG) think tank. SRG was the mathematical equivalent of the Manhattan project, but using statistics as opposed to explosions. The group of mathematicians solved some of the most important problems facing the Allied war effort: where guns should be placed on planes, fuel mixtures for optimal distances, torpedo barrages, bombing patterns, and numerous other problems that require mathematical expertise to be applied to real life situations.

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