There’s an intriguing story about World War 2 bombers that ties into problems I’m hearing today from small business owners. The solution to this bomber problem also happens to be some of the best small business advice for today’s company owner.

At the time, the Navy and Army Air Corps were losing a staggering number of bombers and crews to enemy fire. The officers in the field came up with a seemingly rock-solid plan to reduce losses and casualties.

But then along came a nerdy statistician that flipped their thinking upside down.

And it saved hundreds of lives in the process.

Allow me to explain.

Business Advice From a WW2 Bomber Story That’s Relevant Today

Naval officers were methodically examining damaged planes as they returned from missions, cataloging the damage. They reasoned that adding armor to areas with the most bullet holes per square foot would prevent damage and loss of planes. (Image below.)

B17 bullet holes story

Image Source (to the best of my knowledge): Randy Au, Counting Stuff

Weight restrictions meant they couldn’t add armor everywhere. Every pound of armor reduced their useful load—which could be in the form of crew, fuel, or bombs. Too much armor and you have a useless bomber.

So they asked the Statistical Research Group (SRG) to figure out the optimum balance of armor in frequently-hit locations.

One of SRG’s statisticians, Abraham Wald, knew that he needed a full data set to make accurate calculations.

But he saw that he didn’t have that.

The only data they had was from the damaged returning planes. Obviously, the non-returning planes could never be examined. So, the problem was they were missing a huge chunk of necessary data.

Wald then used his math smarts to calculate the probability of where the non-returning planes had been hit.

His calculations indicated the areas that needed protection most were NOT the areas hit by the most bullets.1 It was the opposite of what officers in the field were thinking.

It makes sense.

The Navy’s bullet hole data showed exactly where the bomber could be shot yet still survive.

Wald theorized that planes getting hit around the non-bullet hole areas in the image were the ones not surviving. He used his math skills to support his case.

So that’s where they put the armor. It saved hundreds of air crews in the coming years.

The story has parallels to today’s business owner who is trying to troubleshoot their marketing or other business problems.

Like the officers in the field, small business owners are in the thick of things.

They’re trying to fix one or more critical operational problems. Yet they can be steered in the wrong direction by their biases or “common sense” beliefs.

It often takes an outsider to see the missing pieces to the puzzle.

When I get stuck, I’ve learned to get out of my own head and get feedback from others.

Some of my best leaps forward were inspired by people in different industries, with wildly different skills.

For example, I’ve worked with or received business advice from small business coaches, a chiropractor, printers, equipment manufacturers, marketing experts, salespeople, technical SEO experts, and a martial arts company owner to name but a few.

Every interaction gave me insight I would not have otherwise gotten.

Where to Get Small Business Advice

My top suggestion for business success is always this—don’t remain stuck in an isolated industry cocoon.

Companies that “do what everyone else is doing” are, by default, NOT differentiating themselves from their competition.

Get to know people in other industries, niches, and locations.

Some other free business resources are right here on our site.

We have plenty of free business advice right here on our small business blog.

There is also the Small Business Rainmaker email newsletter.

Then there is the option to discuss a problem one-on-one with a business coach.

If you want to discuss a business problem or need small business advice, set up a call with me here.

We’ll talk about the issue and see if there is anything I can do to help. Worst case is I’ll give you some suggestions or a referral.

1. Mangel, M., & Samaniego, F. J. (1984). Abraham Wald’s Work on Aircraft Survivability. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 79(386), 259–267.

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Andre Palko Owner
Andre Palko is founder of the Small Business Rainmaker™ and its free weekly e-newsletter. He is dedicated to delivering award-winning marketing and content that helps business owners thrive in any economy.