Beware of Success Stories
It’s gratifying to read reports of successful projects. But it’s important to approach these reports with a healthy dose of skepticism, because analyses of these successes are typically done after the successes have occurred.
You can’t conclude that because a given project did A, B, and C, you will succeed if you similarly do A, B, and C. It may be that any of several unexamined factors are what actually contributed to a given success. Furthermore—and especially important—projects that failed despite doing A, B, and C are rarely reported.
This tendency to look back and think you know what contributed to a given success is called survivorship bias. This bias occurs when you make a decision or take some action based on past successes while ignoring past failures, and it’s one of many cognitive biases that can result in making poor decisions.
For example, if you learned about some successful projects that all included daily stand-up meetings, it would be tempting to conclude that these meetings contributed to the successes—and, indeed, they may have. But it may be that other factors you’re unaware of played a bigger role.
At the same time, you probably lack information about projects that failed or fell short despite holding stand-up meetings. This doesn’t mean that stand-up meetings aren’t a good idea, but rather that it’s best not to assume that implementing them will guarantee you success.
Still, the survivorship bias is an understandable human tendency. We tend to value what we can see at the expense of what we can’t see. This bias reveals a misconception that’s at the heart of most success stories—that is, that you should focus on the successful if your goal is to become successful.
Unfortunately, information about failures is rarely available. For example, as this fascinating article points out, “If you are thinking about opening a restaurant because there are so many successful restaurants in your hometown, you are ignoring the fact that only successful restaurants survive to become examples. Maybe on average 90 percent of restaurants in your city fail in the first year. You can’t see all those failures because when they fail they also disappear from view.”
Survivorship bias can cloud your judgment and prevent you from thinking critically. So be careful.
Before you conclude that what helped someone else achieve a positive outcome will help you as well, ask yourself: What might we be unaware of that led to that positive outcome? What other factors might have contributed? What failures might have occurred in comparable situations? Questions like these will help you get the greatest benefit from the successes of others.