Atul Gawande on Failure and Rescue | The Discipline of Innovation

Atul Gawande on Failure and Rescue

First off, you should go and read all of Atul Gawande’s commencement address to Williams College last weekend. It will take a couple of minutes, but it’s well worth the time. I’ll wait.

Here are some of the highlights for me:

…the critical skills of the best surgeons I saw involved the ability to handle complexity and uncertainty. They had developed judgment, mastery of teamwork, and willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of their choices. In this respect, I realized, surgery turns out to be no different than a life in teaching, public service, business, or almost anything you may decide to pursue. We all face complexity and uncertainty no matter where our path takes us. That means we all face the risk of failure. So along the way, we all are forced to develop these critical capacities—of judgment, teamwork, and acceptance of responsibility.

I thought that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks—that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. But, to my surprise, they didn’t. Their complication rates after surgery were almost the same as others. Instead, what they proved to be really great at was rescuing people when they had a complication, preventing failures from becoming a catastrophe.

Gawande then goes on to outline how to effectively rescue risks that go wrong. The secret is to plan in advance. How will you recognise that things aren’t going to plan? What will you do when things go wrong? What are your backup plans?

Revert to Plan B

When we’re innovating, the failures are generally less fatal than they are for surgeons. But we still need to develop a plan to learn from failure. John quotes Eric Beinhocker on how to do this:

The key to doing better is to ‘bring evolution inside’ and get the wheels of differentiation, selection, and ampification spinning within a company’s four walls. Rather than thinking of strategy as a single plan built on predictions of the future, we should think of strategy as a portfolio of experiments, a population of competing Business Plans that evolves over time.

Gawande is one of the best writers around these days, and his speech hits the nail on the head. The key to risk is not to avoid it. Standing in the same place rarely works in business. Instead, we must take risks, test ideas at the simplest level to substitute idea failures for major ones, and recover (learn) from the ideas that fail.

The only real failure is failing to learn.

(Photo from flickr/martymadrid under a Creative Commons License)

About Tim Kastelle

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

5 Responses to Atul Gawande on Failure and Rescue

  1. ccz 10 June 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Great piece!

    • Tim 11 June 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Thanks Carlos!

  2. Ralph-Christian Ohr 10 June 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Strategy as an evolutionary process is an important point, Tim!

    I’d like to add a quote from Andrew Hargadon, which fits in nicely here:
    “It’s experiments and resulting learning, not the original idea, that defines the ultimate business.”

    • Tim 11 June 2012 at 8:51 am #

      That’s a terrific quote Ralph – thanks! He’s consistently good…


  1. A tale of two ironies – a “forum” about #Manchester and its sustainability | manchester climate monthly - 13 June 2012

    [...] So, after 50 minutes of this, the audience got a chance to talk among themselves and introduce themselves to … nah, just kidding. Straight into the question and answer session. After initial tumbleweeds someone asked “Is carbon coop an experiment?” Yes. And the panellists all then talked about how wonderful experimentation is. Hmmm. Experimentation and innovation are motherhood and apple-pie words. Nobody is against them. What everyone is against is failure. And none of the panellists raised this point. If you are going to have genuine experimentation, you are going to have lots of failure. And bureaucracies – public and private – are very risk-averse. And no politician wants to be able to hand his enemies ammunition. And journalists WILL make hay with failure. And the public is scornful of “waste.” So, what would real experimentation, real tolerance of failure look like? Does Manchester do it? Can it? No panellists raised this. If you are interested in failure, innovation etc, then check out this blog (I’ve deliberately linked to one post in it – the links are worth following). [...]

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