Look for the Hidden Assumptions

What can we learn from bullet holes on WWII airplanes about hidden assumptions in order to get to better decisions.

Today I am going to share a story about hidden assumptions. I am reading another book about mental models (“How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg – link to Goodreads) and there is one example which stood out, especially since I had already read about it multiple times. The example is about the mathematician Abraham Wald, who was helping the United States Air Force (USAF) make better decisions during WWII.

When I need to make a decision, I usually find it very easy to get all the known knowns and known unknowns and put them on the table. But all these are explicit assumptions. For example, I recently changed teams within my organization twice in rapid succession. In both cases, I considered the immediate assumptions. I expected the team I was leaving to keep getting worse and I expected the team I was joining to be better than my previous team and to keep getting better. But I kept asking myself, “Was I wrong?”

Here, I will share with you the story about the bullet holes in the USAF airplanes and how Abraham Wald had the insight in correcting a wrong assumption which could have costed many lives.

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