Throughout my career, I have worked at everything from a mom and pop operation and a government entity to a major corporation.
Each environment presented different challenges, some unique and others just the opposite. One experience shared among them all was the overlooking of silent evidence that gave a true picture of events.
In his 2007 book, The Black Swan, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the phrase “silent evidence”. Loosely defined, silent evidence is the notion that experiential observations cannot always be counted on to develop valid conclusions.
He illustrated his definition with the following story:
A young man, who was an ancient Roman non-believer, was being shown portraits of survivors of a shipwreck. He was told that these people were ‘believers’ and that their survival was proof that prayer saved them from the tragedy.
To this the young man replied, “How many of those who drowned were believers? Did you interview them as well?”
Those drowned believers become the silent evidence against the logic behind the argument that prayer is protection from drowning.
They cannot be surveyed or measured, and their silent testimony is easily ignored. The axiom that history is written by the survivors holds true in the business world.
Everyone loves a winner and few pay attention to the “losers” that litter the landscape. Books abound on the ten things you need to do to be _______ (fill in the blank), because everyone thinks that following someone else’s blueprint guarantees their success.
The truth is that most small business start-ups fail, yet no one lifts up those courageous souls and sings their praises.
Silent evidence examines the story not told by the big sale or the amazing quarterly report. For example, a few months ago a positive jobs report said that 80,000 people were put back to work.
This report supported the “impression” that the economy was starting to revive, however a look at the silent evidence revealed that 45,000 people, who settled a strike and went back to work, buoyed the report.
Most entrepreneurs are optimistic people—just ask their bankers. Eager to start a business and achieve fame and fortune, they seek evidence to support their business ideas.
They may look around the local area and discover that there are no widgets like the one they propose. Based on that research, they believe that their widget will sell like crazy so they approach the bank with their idea, market research and a plan.
The banker examines all aspects of the entrepreneur’s logic with a skeptical eye, looking for the silent logic that will either prove or disprove the theory.
A couple of years ago I had an idea for a project I felt would be a good thing for our department. I proposed the idea to my boss, Joe, who gave me the green light to pursue it.
I did all the research to discover the five things I must do to ensure success—acquired the right equipment, attended the right classes and so on. I put everything in place and prepared for the big launch day.
I invited the Joe to attend the first event of the project to provide feedback and see what great work I did. It was a disaster! When it was over and I was licking my wounds, Joe approached, put his arm around me and asked, “What are you going to fix for the next event?”
I had done everything right, my five things were in place and I had attended all the right classes. What I had failed to do, was look at the failures that had gone before me.
I should have spent time examining the “what not to do” sources, because those became my pitfalls. I have since reviewed the silent evidence and fixed the problems that plagued that first event, thus creating successful projects.
Silent evidence is about looking at evidence not readily apparent that can have an impact. Next time you embark on a new venture, product launch, hiring a new person or any other activity where preconceived notions exist, take a second to examine the story behind the story to discover what tales the dead men tell.