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Learning to do it right

September 19th, 2008

“There are in essence, only two main reasons why people are fallible, why we have failure. One reason is ignorance … a general lack of knowledge about the particulars of how the world really works. But a second source of failure is ineptitude … the knowledge is there, but an individual fails to apply it correctly.” So goes one of the favourite stories of Atul Gawande, surgeon, New Yorker magazine writer and Professor at Harvard. This is an aphorism just as applicable to the museum executive and staff member as it is to a doctor in a hospital or the financial executive in a bank!

Gawende has won heaps of awards including the Macarthur Fellowship, popularly known as ‘the genius prize’ for the fresh and unique perspective, clarity and intuition in his written work and his energetic and imaginative approach to finding practical ways to improve surgical practice. And he has written books now published in more than 100 countries.

In an episode in January 2008 of that wonderful ABC Radio National program “Background Briefing” (which by the way has been going about as long as “Four Corners”) Gawende told of his experiences in a talk to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Gawende shows just how being diligent, being persistent, questioning when things don’t seem to add up and feel right makes such a difference (remember Ralph Siu and Chinese Baseball?). That this behaviour is significantly less common than it should be is because we are all supposed to be efficient, which means taking less time to do things. So many things seem to go wrong, from inadequate buildings to inadequate attention to financial problems in companies to radiocative waste leaking from pipes at Nuclear power stations in Provence, just because of this.

Contrary to that stupid headline I once saw, Gawende’s stories show that we do not need to make decisions faster because change is happening so fast, we need to make decisions more slowly, we need to understand what is going on. Gawende’s stories are wonderful examples of the difference that approach makes!

I have tried to summarise the presentation but you can always go to the full transcript on the ABC website.

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