Not Failing Less, but Rescuing More
written by Jackie Lorch,
Commencement addresses are an American tradition. Every year in May or June, famous and/or accomplished speakers share observations on familiar themes: success, opportunity, the meaning of life… Very often, these speeches are instantly forgettable. Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande had some interesting thoughts about turning failure into success, however, in an address he gave at Williams College in Massachusetts last month.
Gawande pointed out that commencement speakers always urge graduating students to take risks – but do we really want a surgeon, for example, who likes taking risks? Some hospitals, said Gawande, have far higher death rates after surgery than others. You might think that the best places just do a better job of controlling and minimizing risks—but research finds that their complication rates after surgery are almost the same as others.
Instead, what the better hospitals are good at is rescuing people from a complication – in other words preventing failures from becoming catastrophes.
In the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico the key error seems to have been a delay in accepting that something serious was wrong and that a new plan of action was required.
By acting early, you can buy time for trial and error in fixing a problem, says Gawande, with the result that a failure may not end up as a failure after all.
The research industry is often characterized as being risk-averse. Is that so? If it is, are we damaging our long-term health as an industry, at a time when more and more different companies are bringing new ideas, technologies and techniques into the research space? Gawande concludes that success is possible only after you have properly prepared for failure. Is trying new things and being ready to take action fast if things don’t work out something we need to work on?