Slowing Down to Speed Up: What a Dairy Farm Taught Our CEO About Innovation
“Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” - David Deutsch
I first learned about innovation growing up on my grandfather’s dairy farm in rural Texas.
One year he struggled to find a solution that would help him increase crop production. His neighbors, having the same problem, tried solving it with higher quantities of fertilizer and more expensive seeds.
My grandfather understood that neither of these were the root problem, so he took the time to study everything he did on the farm before discovering that leftover surface matter from plowing was decreasing the number of seeds making it into the soil during planting.
Once he had the root problem in place, he developed a drag plow by welding together fence posts and run-down equipment lying around the farm. I have distinct memories of people visiting the farm to understand how he overcame the challenge no one else could figure out that year.
We in the healthcare industry desperately need to learn how to innovate from people like him. In recent years, we have seen massive investments made toward healthcare technology, but the overall costs of healthcare continue to skyrocket without a corresponding increase in quality and access.
Like my grandfather, we need to rethink how we approach innovation. We need to learn how to patiently search for the root problems before we spend more money and time solving for the wrong ones.
Rising Problems in Healthcare
The rising cost of healthcare is reaching nearly 20% of the United States’ GDP - twice as much per capita than that of other developed nations, and experts project that these numbers show no sign of slowing down.
Despite the United States spending much more than comparable countries, a 2017 study by the Commonwealth Fund rated the US last out of 11 high-income countries for overall health care system performance.
Is this really the best we can do? Are our healthcare challenges just too complex to solve?
Most of the leaders that I spend time with would say no, but collectively, we’re stuck asking the same questions:
What do we do differently?
What would meaningful progress even look like?
How do we innovate?
Too often we want innovation to be like the popular success stories we hear about all the time, the ones when the innovator has some special gift or vision, some it factor or silver bullet that others simply don’t have access to.
But solving the big healthcare problems doesn’t take silver bullets. It takes a completely new approach towards innovation, one that slows down, questions assumed knowledge, and establishes rhythms of intellectual honesty.
True innovation requires slowing down to speed up.
My grandfather would have never come up with an innovative solution to his crop problem if he just quickly reacted to the situation. He knew that he needed to take the time to look closely in order to get to the root problem at hand.
In the healthcare industry, deadlines, financial responsibilities, and other circumstances can make this kind of necessary patience seem impossible or unwise, but innovation cannot be rushed.
Elon Musk, one of the most prominent innovators of our time, sees the value in taking time to get to the root problem before looking for solutions.
He explains that most people “get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.” This way of thinking, according to Musk, does not lead to innovation.
Innovation only becomes possible when we find the real problem at hand. “It is important to view knowledge as a sort of semantic tree,” he says. “Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Spending too much time on the problems in the leaves will cause one to ignore the trunk that is rotting away, but taking time to solve for the rotting trunk will always lead to stronger branches and healthier leaves.
Question What You Think You Know
While this may sound easy enough, relying too much on our own intelligence can easily cause us to overlook the root problems.
In her book, Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke explains that, “the smarter you are, the better you are at constructing a narrative that supports your beliefs, rationalizing and framing the data to fit your argument or point of view."
We need to question ourselves even when we think we already arrived at the right answer.
Ray Dalio, considered the Steve Jobs of investing, argues that asking “are we right?” is not as productive as asking “how do we know we are right?” According to him, the latter leads to much more productive problem solving skills.
In Principles, he explains that “what differentiates people who live up to their potential from those who don’t is their willingness to look at themselves and others objectively and understand the root causes standing in their way.”
To foster this type of radical-transparency, Dalio established a culture of open-mindedness that has helped him become one of the most influential innovators of our time.
With the level of intelligence in our industry, it’s easy to find answers that support our original assumptions. Confidence and experience can mislead us into reassuring ourselves that we’re on the right path, that we already have the right answers. Questioning what we know will help us identify the root problems standing in the way of innovation.
Most often when I talk with people about innovation, they’re looking for some quick, specific answer. They want to know how to be innovative.
But innovation is not a singular outcome. It’s a rhythm of intellectual honesty, a skill you have to practice daily. I’ve seen teams get really upset and throw in the towel after six months, frustrated they hadn’t reached Apple’s level of innovation, but innovation is a continually evolving process.
Incorporating rhythms of innovation will look different for everyone, and I won’t pretend to have some profound insight that sets my rhythms apart, but I will share some of the practices we include in our weekly schedule at blockit:
Engage with people who disagree.
Surround ourselves with people who will challenge us, not just blindly follow our lead.
Work with those whose lives are impacted by the problem, both directly from being on the ground and indirectly due to the implications.
These practices have helped us innovate in our products, our solutions, and our approaches to solving future problems.
Why We Innovate
If we want to make meaningful progress in healthcare, innovation will no doubt be a cornerstone, but we need to keep in mind that innovation is more than just newer, shinier tools that lead to higher revenues and bigger profits. Our desire to innovate should be fueled by an understanding that the work we do really matters.
We can get so caught up in innovation that we forget that the healthcare industry exists to contribute to human flourishing, to save lives and reduce suffering. Paired with that, most of us would say we want to engage in meaningful work, to make progress toward why we chose this field in which we invest ourselves.
Every tool that we create or system we refine or structure we improve should help improve people's quality of life, including those people that are working together to achieve that outcome. Without this kind of thinking, we will fail to make any meaningful progress, and we will never be innovative no matter how nice the outcome is or how fast the product works.
Once we start slowing down to speed up, we will begin to see the innovation that we all want, the kind that leads to more flourishing societies and people.
Jake McCarley is the Founder and CEO of Blockit. Well-versed in both automation and human process related healthcare issues, he is making bold moves to improve the health for both underserved communities and well served patients nationally.