Where ideas come from…

We know that if we collaborate with a wide range of people, with diversity of thought, great outcomes can be achieved. One interesting example of this is an example from World War 2.

A statistician, named Abraham Wald was working at a company called Statistical Research Group when they were asked during the middle of the war effort by the American military to take a look at the fighter planes that had returned from missions and identify where would be the most suitable places to add some extra bullet proof armour, so that less planes were shot down and more would return home safely.

Abraham was born in India in 1950 and graduated from the University of Vienna with a doctorate in mathematics, before immigrating to the United States. His contributions, in addition to this piece of work for the military, included the creation of a new formula for the cost of living index, among other things. Abraham was widely recognized as one of the most brilliant statistical minds before his untimely death at the young age of 48 in 1950, in a plane crash.

As Abraham went about his work, the military had provided him with a comprehensive view of all of the bullet holes in the planes that had returned from battle. It was clear to see that the area in and around the fuselage had taken a lot of bullet rounds and the military were ready to reinforce this area. Fortunately, they had asked for the outside help and support from the Statistical Research Group, and as a result of this outside perspective, the Group reasoned that the military had provided data on planes that had returned and thus the fact that they had taken bullet rounds in the fuselage area and returned may actually indicate that this was not a particularly troubling place to have taken the shot. However, as the data did not highlight many bullet rounds in the engine space, Abraham reasoned that this would be the area best suited to reinforcement. Of course, this was the right answer and the planes were reinforced and subsequently achieved greater success, with more successful missions and more pilots returning home safely (Mangel & Samaniego, 1984)[i].

So, the morale of the story is that the best ideas often come from outside, and instead of asking ourselves where the best ideas come from, we perhaps need to ask ourselves where do they not come from and then search there.

[i] Mangel, M & Samaniego, F (1984) Abraham Wald’s Work on Aircraft Survivability, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 79 (386), pp259-267

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