Innovation Made Easy… or Else

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by: John Caddell

Many of my posts originate when two interesting ideas collide–two things I’ve read, possibly from very different points of view or with different objectives in mind, somehow fit together, or together illuminate something to me that’s clearer than either piece on its own.

Today there are three such things. Let’s call them stories of innovation made easy. First is the paper "The Ergonomics of Innovation," by Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao in September’s McKinsey Quarterly, which despite its awkward title is very clearly written and argued. Its central point, illustrated by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s campaign to save 100,000 unnecessary hospital deaths, is that the best innovations are often the simplest and most basic. In other words, a partial solution that is easy to communicate and to implement may bring far more value than a more complete solution that is more complex and difficult to bring into production. Here’s a synopsis of Sutton’s and Rao’s argument:

A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive “affordances” can help people to think about, know, and use something more easily and to make fewer errors. The IHI campaign didn’t use the language of ergonomics but nonetheless applied its logic in hundreds of ways by designing and spreading affordances that made it easier for the staffs of the participating hospitals to change.

I’ve meant to write about this article for several weeks. But two more things I’ve read this week buttressed Sutton’s and Rao’s arguments. First is a report from Mark Schneck at Anecdote on a talk from this year’s ActKM Conference in Australia. This simple change didn’t save 100,000 lives but may have saved 100,000 hours wasted reading emails:

Jane mentioned that one of the actions from their knowledge strategy has had a big impact. This simple action was for all staff to write a clear description in the subject line of their emails. Adopting this practice has helped staff deal with information overload by being able to quickly identify emails that they need to deal with, and which ones can be simply deleted.

Finally, today Andrew McAfee blogged about an innovation at American Airlines that simply isn’t sticking:

According to American, "Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun." The new configuration seems to be pretty uniform; I’ve seen it at every airport I’ve flown out of over the past month, which is more than a couple.

The new configuration also seems to be uniformly ignored. My fellow travelers and I have continued to line up and board just as we always do, except now we use two narrow lanes instead of one broad one. I haven’t yet seen us fliers make any effort to sort ourselves into the ‘right’ lane, and I certainly haven’t seen anyone voluntarily take themselves out of the lane reserved for the elites and rejoin the general boarding hoi polloi.

More importantly, I also haven’t seen American’s gate agents make any effort to sort us properly. I’ve heard them make announcements about the two lanes, but that’s as far as it’s gone….

It struck me at some point over the past month that I was witnessing an excellent example of why so many business improvement efforts fail: it’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s that they’re not easy enough to enforce. American’s PriorityAAccess boarding procedure is a straightforward case of what used to be called ‘business process reengineering,’ and it’s also a microcosm of why reengineering so often failed. It’s one thing for a small group of smart people to study an existing process and figure out a way to execute it better. It’s quite another to then deploy that new-and-improved process broadly — across many business units, geographies, and/or interdependent groups.

In other words, the PriorityAAcess procedure didn’t provide enough affordances to allow harried gate agents to easily deploy it. So they didn’t.

This is an important lesson for me. My automatic mindset seeks out the elegant, complete solution. I don’t gravitate toward the simple, dumb solution. Even though, as I’m learning, that one may be the best of all.

(Bonus: this also reminded me of the previously blogged about innovation at a Singapore hospital, where a cheap webcam helped significantly reduce wait times in the emergency room.)

Related post:
Stop studying the problem, and just try something!

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