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How Story Collection Won the War

Posted by  Kevin Bishop —November 23, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

I recently read a fascinating account of how story collection made a real difference in America winning the Second World War (or at least their part in it). Rob Yeung tells the story about the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the psychologist John C. Flanagan in his recent book The Extra One Per Cent.

In June, 1941 the USAAF was created as part of the USA’s preparations for being involved in the Second World War. Less than six months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the USAAF was immediately ordered to ramp up its number of pilots, not by hundreds, or thousands, but by tens of thousands.

However, more men were being shot down than were being trained. Thousands of cadets were killed during training accidents every year, while thousands more were dropped for not being good enough. You can imagine that the decision to drop a trainee from flight school wasn’t taken lightly. It was incredibly expensive to recruit and train new recruits only to kick them out, and the Air Force desperately needed every pilot they could create.

The USAAF began to look at why pilots were being rejected and the reasons given on documentation produced by the expert tutors were things like, “poor judgement”, “insufficient progress” or even lack of “inherent flying ability.” But what did such phrases mean? No one knew exactly, and certainly these explanations were not good enough to avoid recruiting the wrong kind of candidates.

To address this issue the USAAF hired civilian psychologist John C. Flanagan. He quickly realised that most people, whether the trainee pilots themselves or the highly experienced instructors, were almost useless at explaining what contributed to even phenomenal success or dreadful failure. He wrote: “Too often, statements regarding job requirements are merely lists of all the desirable traits of human beings. These are practically no help in selecting, classifying or training individuals for specific jobs.” (1)

So Flanagan started to focus on getting people to talk about specific episodes of either triumph or failure, in forensic detail, with a particular focus on what they did, what they said, and what they were thinking at the time. Rather than asking for general opinions as to why people think they succeed or fail, Flanagan (and his army of over 150 psychologists and 1,000 assistants) solicited descriptions of what they did in the past. Rather than asking; “What do you do?” or “What do you think you do?”, the emphasis became “What did you do?”

Flanagan’s work make a tangible contribution to the war effort by allowing the USAAF to make better recruitment decisions, turning away more candidates who were unlikely to make it through pilot training or perhaps even more likely to kill themselves in the process. For his effort he was awarded the Legion of Merit for the outstanding contribution that he and his team made towards winning the war.

This story for me underpins a lot about what initially attracted me to Anecdote. Having an approach built around really understanding and making sense of what is going on through collecting real life, specific examples before rushing straight to solutions is one that just seems to make sense for me. It also reminds me of the power of making things concrete, and how abstractions, opinions and beliefs can ‘get in the way’ of understanding and clarity.

This USAAF/Flanagan story is certainly one I will be telling in the future to help make the point about the power story collection can have.

(1) Flanagan, J. C. (Ed.). (1947). The aviation psychology program in the Army Air Force (Research Report 1). Washington, DC: US Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program

About  Kevin Bishop

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