Innovation Blog

Innovating by Defining (and Sticking to) the Rules

By Shlomo Maital

    More than once, in this space, I’ve defined innovation as breaking the rules.

    Dr. Atul GawandeWell, here is an innovation that focuses on obsessively defining and sticking to the rules — one that saves lives.

   Dr. Atul Gawande is a Harvard Medical School professor,  practicing surgeon, New Yorker staff writer and brilliant author.  His new book is called The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan Books: 2009). 

    Here is what Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) says about the book in his New York Times blog:

” It is the best book I’ve read in ages. The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed check lists can improve outcomes (even for Gawande’s own surgical team). The best-known use of checklists is by airplane pilots. Among the many interesting stories in the book is how this dedication to checklists arose among pilots.”

    And here is what author Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink) says about it:

        ” Gawande begins by making a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know). Failure in the modern world, he writes, is really about the second of these errors, and he walks us through a series of examples from medicine showing how the routine tasks of surgeons have now become so incredibly complicated that mistakes of one kind or another are virtually inevitable: it’s just too easy for an otherwise competent doctor to miss a step, or forget to ask a key question or, in the stress and pressure of the moment, to fail to plan properly for every eventuality. Gawande then visits with pilots and the people who build skyscrapers and comes back with a solution. “

   “Experts need checklists–literally–written guides that walk them through the key steps in any complex procedure. In the last section of the book, Gawande shows how his research team has taken this idea, developed a safe surgery checklist, and applied it around the world, with staggering success.”

    Management educators teach that business success requires three essential disciplines:  innovativeness, operational excellence and customer intimacy.  They stress that these disciplines are closely related.  Innovation succeeds only when combined with operational skill.  Operational skill, in turn, may require adherence to a checklist, as Gawande suggests. 

    The trick is,  how to combine  chaotic rule-defying creativity with the rule-adhering Prussian discipline of checklists. 

    Great innovators succeed.