The Most Important Innovation of All Time

What is the most important innovation ever?

There are plenty of candidates. Fire, the telegraph, electricity, and the internet would all have to be candidates.

There’s another one though, that has had an enormous impact on every single one of us. And surprisingly, it’s not a whiz-bang piece of technology. It’s a simple process innovation.

The most important innovation of all time is: medical practitioners washing their hands before they touch patients.

Hand washing has been an unbelievably important medical breakthrough. It is one of the main reasons that we actually live long enough to retire now.

As with many great innovations, hand washing started with a scientific discovery – the germ theory of disease. And as with some innovations, the theory was driven by beer. Louis Pasteur’s work was motivated by brewers who couldn’t figure out why some batches of beer fermented well, while others failed. So in trying to make better beer, Pasteur made us all healthier.

There are some critical innovation lessons here:

  • Ideas need to be executed to create value: the germ theory of disease is an important scientific breakthrough, but a theory isn’t an innovation. Theories are often great ideas, but to become an innovation they have to be turned into something that can be executed to create value. Germ theory led to many important innovations: pasteurization, antibiotics, and hand washing. These innovations have had impact on a wide range of industries and activities, and that is where the value has been created.
  • Innovation isn’t just about new technology: hand washing in hospitals isn’t a sexy new piece of technology (which is maybe part of why it’s still hard to get everyone to do it consistently). Hand washing is a process, and process innovation can be incredibly important. Just think about the assembly line, lean management, or agile software development. All are process innovations, all are important, like hand washing.
  • Small innovations can have enormous impacts: one feature of complex systems is that small changes can results in gigantic change. That’s what happened with hand washing. This new process has made childbirth much safer, it improved the success rate of all surgeries, and it greatly reduced the chance of secondary infection in medical procedures. And it’s about the simplest thing imaginable!

So the next time you wash your hands before eating, think about what a great breakthrough you’re participating in. And when you’re thinking about innovation, remember that it’s often the smallest ideas that can make the biggest difference.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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