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New ideas or the same old thing?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Particularly in uncertain times, there is a significant tension between playing it safe versus doing something very different. A couple of recent examples have brought this to mind, and seem to have great parallels to a lot of business decisions and critical work on business strategy.

The two examples in my mind are recruitment, and what I find one of the most annoying things about job advertisements; and a recent medical breakthrough that is one of the best examples of knowledge transfer I’ve seen recently.

The medical breakthrough

A few weeks ago, I quoted Seth Godin having a dig at some in the medical profession, and, more broadly, those who look for solutions exclusively from within their own area of expertise. He said:

One study found that when confronted with a patient with back pain, surgeons prescribed surgery, physical therapists thought that therapy was indicated and yes, acupuncturists were sure needles were the answer. Across the entire universe of patients, the single largest indicator of treatment wasn't symptoms or patient background, it was the background of the doctor.

You can read the full article here

A great example of the complete opposite being true is the case of Tal Golesworthy, an engineer who needed an operation to prevent his aorta splitting. With his engineering expertise, he reflected on what the standard medical approach was, and decided that he could design something better. It’s early days, but his operation went well, it has since been performed on around 20 people, and it could lead to a significant change in the way that heart operations are performed.

Two really significant things stick out of this example. The first is that the patient, despite his supposed lack of expertise in the medical field was confident enough to use his other expertise to challenge convention. The second is that those who were running with convention were open-minded enough to listen and take on board advice from an expert from a completely different field.

Recruitment annoyances

Recruitment is rather top of my mind at the moment, as I’m involved as a governor in the selection process for a head teacher. This has reminded me not only how banal many job advertisements are, but how narrow they are in their approach. For example:

If you want to play it safe, not risk upsetting the applecart, then the right thing to do is to recruit someone who has all of the generic positive attributes, and has as much experience in the field as possible. But, when you need a change, this simply will not do – you need someone with (1) significantly different experiences to draw on; and (2) the ability to make mental leaps and connections between the past and current/future environments.


It is bound to be nerve-wracking, for many people, to go out on a limb and challenge convention, to challenge people in their area of expertise, or to challenge yourself to really think differently, but that is where the best, most creative, most inspirational, most transformational, and most incredible things come from.

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