We can’t help it, evidently. We often over-react, over-complicate, and over-spend to find immediate solutions.
All at the expense of actually solving long-term, underlying, real, substantive problems.
One part of this condition is political – locally, nationally, internationally, and in our businesses & families. We want to show our stakeholders, our family, our employers, or our employees that we’re SERIOUS and that we’re DOING SOMETHING.
Another part is ignorance. It’s often difficult to see past tradition or ‘just how things are done’ and view a condition through a broader lens. Besides, it’s comfortable. And change is hard.
So, we scream, agitate, resist, or push instead, to get the feeling of progress. No matter that these things may actually be wrong or wasteful or counter-intuitive.
These irrational reactions are regularly harmful and rarely provide direct solutions to a problem – or crisis – at hand. But many of us just keep singing the same song in different microphones. Same as it ever was.
Check out these examples of the arrogance and waste of Innovation Blindness from the past 100 years.
The Rare Earth Elements Crisis
Back in 2010, two sea-going vessels – one from China and one from Japan – collided in disputed waters between the two countries. The fallout from the ensuing international incident included China imposing an embargo on rare earth elements to Japan. At the time, China was the source of 97 percent of the world’s known rare earth elements.
These elements were – and are – critical to the manufacture of the world’s most sophisticated tech. Automobiles. Computers. Magnets. Batteries. Phones. And, of course, defense equipment and weaponry. Needless to say, a LOT of people began to freak out because this condition exposed China’s extreme leverage over all country’s manufacturing and defense bases.
I witnessed the resulting panic first-hand. As a consultant at the time for many US and multinational manufacturers, I watched and heard many supply chain, production, operation, and defense professionals come unglued over these developments. New suppliers were frantically sought. New techniques were tested and developed to more efficiently extract rare earth materials from other ores and sources. And a great deal of investment was made in finding new sources in other countries and continents. MANY resources were thrown at that last part. It was a scramble.
Then, in April of this year, a funny thing happened. Japanese scientists found the mother load of rare earth elements. Accidentally. Less than 800 miles off the Japanese coast. Not in disputed waters. The richness of the find is staggering in its size and wealth. ” … including 780 years’ worth of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium and 730 years’ worth of dysprosium. This find, the scientists concluded, ‘has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world.'” (Story here.)
For all the fretting and expense, innovation and discovery caught everyone by surprise. The panic subsided overnight, and most everyone simply forgot the meltdown.
The Peptic Ulcer Boondoggle
I remember growing up at a time that folks would drink scotch with milk. It was fairly common, for those that had stomach ulcers. They just had to find ways live with them. To try to be happy.
For well over a century, from the mid-1800’s to the 1990’s, stomach ulcers were caused by stress. Indisputable, unequivocal truth. Substantial ecosystems had been created and sustained around this fact for generations. Hot springs, retreats, surgeries, treatments, drugs. Many people were making tons of dough. Established science.
In 1981, an Australian doctor in the (western) outback named Barry Marshall became curious about peptic ulcers he found in many of his patients, and the stomach cancer that often followed. Something didn’t seem to fit neatly with the status quo, that stress actually caused these things.
You can read Barry’s story and details in this article and interview. But here’s my point:
Common medical knowledge said since before the US Civil War that ‘stress = ulcers’ was a thing. To challenge the status quo, Dr. Marshall had to:
- Submit countless papers confirming his team’s findings
- Treat numerous patients without ‘approval’ to save their lives
- Submit more countless studies and results
- Suffer the judgement of the vast, international body of experts that said he was a backwoods hack
- Also accept that he was forbidden from testing his theories on any human subject, under penalty of law & prison
So, as a last resort, Barry infected himself with the bacteria his team believed caused ulcers. He drank a broth, and got really sick, really fast. He treated himself and got well. Really fast. The worldwide medical intelligentsia had no choice but to accept Barry was right, and they’d been wrong. 100+ years of arrogance, gone. Ulcers weren’t caused by stress. It was a bacteria. Easily treated with antibiotics.
For years, a lot of people had died. Many more lived a long time in physical agony. All because a religious-like belief perpetuated a poorly-deduced scientific study.
Now days, when anyone gets a peptic ulcer, no one talks about relaxing or taking it easy. They’ve always been caused by bacteria, don’t you know?
And, today, no one really brings up the role that institutional arrogance played in perpetuating a deadly myth.
Horse Manure Du Jour
It’s the late 1800’s. New York City is experiencing massive growth as a result of Reconstruction, immigration, and the Industrial Revolution. This growth was supported on the work of horses. Wagons, carriages, cars, streetcars – all depended on equine power.
But with the enormous growth came an equally-enormous amount of horse manure. And carcasses. By 1880, it was estimated that there were over 150,000 horses in NYC, evacuating 22 pounds of waste per horse, per day. Reports of the day observed piles on the streets over 50 feet high.
Dung was everywhere, and many entrepreneurs took advantage – creating fertilizer, clearing streets, all for profit. But as the horse population increased so did the amount of waste. As supply increased, the competition and lowering costs made these enterprises less attractive. So it was harder to rely on the market to fix the problem.
But the REAL problems began near the turn of the century. The ubiquitous layers of waste and horse corpses in the streets became a serious, full-blown public health crisis. Disease and contamination were increasing. NYC (and London, and other large cities) began to again focus directly on the immediate problem – reducing the waste and cadavers. Engineers and politicians enacted strict regulations regarding the boarding and care of horses in the city. But this was like using a squirt gun on a forest fire.
Then, ANOTHER funny thing happened – the automobile. Electric cable cars and the internal combustion engine were rapidly adopted by industry, citizens, and markets. Within 10 years, automobiles outnumbered horses in NYC. Innovation and its unintended, positive consequences solved a seemingly insurmountable crisis, nearly overnight. And indirectly.
We Rarely See It Coming – And That’s Our Fault
We can find and use many lessons from these events in our professional and personal lives.
See beyond our walls – To focus on a problem myopically is to often overlook the more effective, efficient solution. In each of these cases, the resolutions came from unrelated or unexpected sources – exploration & discovery, an unknown ‘expert,’ or innovation in an unrelated industry. As problem solvers, it’s incumbent on us to look outside and beyond our spheres of influence for developments and techniques that may solve unforeseen challenges, or have already solved the problem at hand.
Panic is wasteful, and makes us weak – We may think that tantrums or flailing about sends a message that we’re taking things seriously, but doing so often has little effect on outcomes. The panic within supply chains had little direct impact on the scientists that discovered the trove of rare earth elements, or the speed with which they did it. The panic in NYC, and assignment of top engineers and forceful regulations did little if anything to inspire and accelerate the advent of the automobile. And the international medical community – for all their resistance and skepticism – couldn’t stop Dr. Barry Marshall and the truth. In each case, untold resources and revenues were misdirected and wasted.
Be authentic, and don’t be stupid – The cycles of Innovation Blindness can only be broken by owning up to, and learning from, past harmful behaviors. Instead, we see the actors in these and other plays move onto their next acts repeating the same lines. MANY doctors I’ve met who tout our undeniably great strides made in medicine in the last 100 years clam up when confronted with the ‘settled science’ of peptic ulcers. The talented supply chain professionals and executives that I witnessed firsthand lose their (ahem) manure over the rare earth crisis now play down their initial reactions like they didn’t happen. I can’t be sure, but I’ll bet most shop owners in Manhattan, Queens, or the Bronx don’t wake up everyday thanking God for streets clean of horse crap. Those of us that do know and do remember these things are left dumbfounded by denials like these, and make us less likely to believe those that don’t or won’t acknowledge these shortcomings when the next crisis comes along. Proceed at your peril.
Everything’s gonna be alright – And this is the most important lesson. In each of these examples, everything worked out just fine. For all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching, none of it made any real difference. You know what did? The human spirit and intelligence and focus and innovation. Hope is something we should bring to our professional lives, as well as the personal aspects.
None of this is to suggest that we don’t try. And there are certainly times suitable for panic. Like real tragedies – fires, floods, riots, or that the Reds can’t develop starting pitching.
But when everything is Pork Chop Hill, there is no Pork Chop Hill. Take the blinders off, look for innovation and confidence to get past crises, and stop worrying and over-emoting.
You’ll get an ulcer.