Certainly there is a good deal to learn from the most successful employees in any organization, but isolating them as the only source of ‘best practice’ is a limiting and potentially dangerous perspective.
Those who fail and those who may have moved on can teach learning leaders critical lessons as well. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize situations where survivorship bias, the tendency to focus on those who succeeded rather those who failed, affects leaders’ decision-making negatively.
Take the story of the Statistical Research Group think tank during World War II. SRG was the mathematical equivalent of the Manhattan Project, using statistics as opposed to explosions to solve some of the most important problems facing the Allied war effort, such as where guns should be placed on planes, fuel mixtures for optimal distances and bombing patterns.
One of its duties was to help place armor on planes that protected them but added as little weight as possible. After studying the bombers but failing to use the information for an effective solution, the military turned over the data and the responsibility to the SRG. The group found more bullet holes in the fuselage compared with the engine area, which led the military to incorrectly assume the armor and its weight was more effectively used on the fuselage.
SRG scientist Abraham Wald's approach was different — put the armour where the bullets aren't. When he considered the bombers that did notmake it back from bombing runs, he decided the solution was to armour the engines. The military never considered the bullet holes in the engine blocks they did not observe.
Today’s learning leaders may not have the SRG to solve learning and development challenges, but they can certainly learn from survivorship bias. Modeling learning programs after the best employees only is a perfect example of how survivorship bias can be an issue.
If the planes that didn't return were key to solving the SRG’s problem, then who are the planes that should be considered when solving a learning problem?
The more valuable insight from success is what not to do, and that requires working from failure. When analyzing why participants do not use the training they receive — the planes that did not return — consider three main reasons:
Category One:Participants are successful using their own methods and do not need to use the learning.
Category Two: Participants try to use the learning, experience failure, give up and go back to previous methods.
Category Three: Participants use the learning persistently, change and are successful.
Participants from categories one and two are the evidence, or the missing planes, leaders are not considering during the learning and development strategy and design process. This 70 percent of learners represent where to place the armor — i.e., where to apply your budget for the greatest return.
Creating safe and deliberate practice in the field can prevent survivorship bias from working against learning objectives. Consider taking the following actions:
1. Create practice based scenarios that break down the learning process into small steps.
2. Repeat the process and increase skill and intensity.
3. Use professional role players to simulate reality and increase emotional intensity.
4. Create trust by providing feedback and coaching throughout the practice.
5. Measure a defined set of skills.
This final step holds the key to extracting the data to determine where to place the armor. The professional role player measures each skill and ends up with relevant cohort data on each skill. Data from the lowest two or three performing skills are then fed back into the knowledge transfer stage, such as a workshop or e-learning, to be reinforced. This feedback loop helps to avoid survivorship bias and tells leaders where to put their armor.
The SRG helped win WWII through math and logic. Although it is not life or death, the battle for budget and resources in learning and development is the chief learning officers’ to win. They are responsible for arming employees with the best learning so they can achieve their objectives in the field.