Everything is ripe for innovation because human error is ubiquitous

Many known businesses have been founded on a single insight about what customers want or will want. Since forward-thinking businesses live off the insights they identify and generate, their operating model looks quite different from businesses that are always playing catch up.

As stated before, most businesses exist exploit their business model and to squeeze out as much efficiency out of it. That usually translates into mindless behavior in both the front-lines and at corporate HQ. Again, identifying the type of insights that fuel breakthroughs should be an ongoing activity inside businesses; but that is rarely the case.

How do you identify and generate insights?

One way to acquire insights is by identifying frustrations, and this is probably the most ubiquitous way identify them since human error is common.

Here’s a short story of what this looks like…

The last two weeks have been strange for me. First, I was diagnosed with having a tumor just above my upper wrist which meant a doctor cut me open to remove the small tumor. Fortunately, the diagnosis was wrong and what looked like a tumor was something else.

A couple of things from this experience pissed me off:

  • Though I was relieved to know the little ball they removed was not a tumor, I was pissed. You see, I didn’t believe it was a tumor; and was shocked when I was told that it was. That is until it wasn’t. I thought to myself, “you should’ve just told me the tumor was not benign”. It could have been a cleaner and much cheaper procedure if they’d immediately identified that it wasn’t a tumor.
  • This particular dermatologist treats her patients like numbers. Maybe other people are used to it, and don’t really care if they are treated like numbers that just walk through the door, get a procedure done and pay; but I’m not used to it. And will not accept anything like that. What’s worse is her staff follows that lead: employees are just answering phone calls, taking your name, and calling your name when you’re next in line.

I could go on and on…

To see how deep the rabbit hole of human mindlessness goes, let’s take a look the first U.S. Ebola case from a few weeks ago:

The Dallas hospital treating the first Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S. sent the patient, Thomas Duncan, home the first time he showed up because the doctors who saw him never learned that he’d just come from West Africa. The hospital has blamed a flaw in its electronic health records for keeping information collected by a nurse, including Duncan’s travel history, from being presented to the treating physician, who mistook Duncan’s symptoms for a low-level infection, on Sept. 25. (Update: The hospital has since changed its explanation.)

The apparent mistake meant Duncan was not admitted and isolated until Sept. 28. That increased the risk of infection for those he came in contact with while he was sick, including his family, who are now quarantined in their Dallas apartment. It also widened the circle of contacts that public health officials must trace and monitor for symptoms.

As the story’s title implies, What’s scarier than Ebola? Human error.

Yes, human error is scary. It is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe: we never think about it.

And that’s the problem.

When organizations start believing they are “failure proof” because they’ve figured out some formula for success, that somehow they are special, they are entering the human error zone. But, just like getting the flu starts slowly, hubris is the disease that dethrones many once successful businesses.

As Ed Catmull rightly says “Success hides problems“.

As I’ve mentioned before, the biggest impediment to innovation inside enterprises is human nature. The fear of losing what one has is the most pervasive “human error” of all; it creates an environment of reaction, not pro-action.

When organizations are proactive, they deliberately create new mistakes to uncover insights that will help focus their energies on creating a different and better future; rather than avoid them. Proactive organizations are not immune to human error, they are aware that mistakes will be made. But, understand that being aware is not enough. So, they put mechanisms in pace that will enable them to deter human error, or if it does happen to recover from stupid mistakes.

There are the mindless and stupid mistakes you make that stem from lack of self awareness, then there are the mistakes you deliberately create by pushing boundaries; the ones that lead to insights. One road leads to innovation, the other leads to perpetual mediocrity.

The problem with hubris stems from the belief that merely replicating what you do, being efficient, makes you brilliant. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be an expert doesn’t make you immune to failure, it makes you a failure in the long run because what you know will change in the future.

As customers, the frustrations we feel when we interact with businesses stem from the mindless behavior their employees are engaged in. And as business leaders, we put ourselves at risk by being mindless. You see, we must avoid mindless stupidity at all costs. As Charlie Munger states, “Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

I see human error all around me. One of the most ubiquitous forms of human error is the mindlessness chatter that has taken over “innovation”. The word has lost meaning because people are using it more as a competitive activity, rather than a mindset. This goes back to my point about being proactive (playing to win) versus being reactive (playing not to lose).

But, if you look deeply, you can separate the wannabe’s from the doers: real innovators give a damn. Not about “being innovative”, but about making a difference.

So, if you are a true innovator you are both aware and engaged in eliminating human error; the type of innovation that leads to the betterment of people’s lives. Now that is something that matters.