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“Digital Help” Gone Bad... and Lessons on Adopting New Technology

When “Digital help” Killed a US President... And What That Teaches Us About Adopting Technology 

Adopting new technology isn’t straightforward, but there’s a way to de-risk it


There was a time when digital had nothing to do with bits and bytes. Yeah, those were the good old days when digital help in medicine meant probing fingers. And it killed US President James A. Garfield. 


True story. President Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau because, wait for it, Guiteau wanted a consular position in Paris. Yes, I know that makes you question his job interview strategy and that side story itself is fascinating, but we won’t digress. The two resulting bullet wounds didn’t kill the President. Doctors quickly attended to him and stabilized him. Problem was, they couldn’t locate one of the bullets in the body despite their best efforts. Alexander Graham Bell even created a specific metal detector to find it. The results from the metal detector didn’t show any bullet on the President’s right side, which is where his physician insisted it had lodged. However, it did show a lot of other metal, which in hindsight was disturbance from the metal bed frame. The doctors dismissed the results from Alexander Graham Bell’s new-fangled device as unreliable. The President eventually died 79 days after he was shot, but not because of that bullet. Doctors later determined that the bullet had ended up on the President’s left side  and that he could have lived even with the bullet inside him. No, what killed him was the infection from the doctors’ unsterilized fingers probing for the bullet. Subsequent tests proved that Bell’s metal detector worked just fine, but he wasn’t allowed to check for metal on the President’s left side. 


At this point, it would easy to make this story all about how resistance to using new technology can have disastrous consequences, but that’s too simplistic. Anyone that’s been in a critical decision role that involves making judgments based on unknown technology knows that there isn’t a black or white answer. No, the bigger question to ponder is whether there are ways to de-risk these critical decisions in a way that allows for more data to be brought into play. 


The importance of using time well for critical decision making:

Fortunately, in business and in life, not every critical decision is an urgent decision. In those cases where some time is available, it’s possible to use it to your advantage and to make more informed calls. That should be true for decisions related to digital disruption for most organizations today. The majority of organizations haven’t yet reached an active business crisis stage. The question is how to best utilize the time before digital disruption turns into an urgent crisis. 

There’s a few things that can be done. 

  1. Initiate fast, low-risk learning: Sorry, protestations of not having enough hours in the day to learn about how new technology could upend your business are simply not good enough. Most organizations have the ability to spend at least 1-2% of their time and money to figure out disruptive technology. The challenge is to use this time and money well. Don’t spin off big grandiose single bets. Iterate by starting with many rapid small tests before converging on a few large projects. Even single big ideas - as in the case of Elon Musk’s big bet on electric cars several years ago, can be split into dozens of smaller explorations e.g battery technology, design choices, materials and manufacturing options. When things fail, as they did many times at Tesla, acknowledge the lesson and pivot quickly. 
  2. Gather facts over opinion: Organizations who push to cut the time dedicated to decision-making in half, and reinvest it on getting more data, end up with much stronger decisions. One useful trick is to force written recommendations and pre-reading material ahead of any discussions. Companies like Procter & Gamble which had previously perfected the art of the one-page recommendation and Amazon which has taken rapid decision making based on pre-reading to an art-form are essentially forcing clarity of data and analysis. These tricks create a cultural shift that values data over opinion. 
  3. Use your time well to drive evolution vs. revolution: Organizations that set a broad direction and use the time to incrementally get to their goal, have twice the success rate of execution than those who spend most of the time on analysis and little on execution. Domino’s Pizza recognized their precarious business situation after the 2008 economic crisis and set a general strategy to use digital technology for competitive advantage. They’ve had tremendous success. Meanwhile, even as their individual digital use-cases continue to pile up, their share price has already turned around from a low of $3 to roughly $250 now. 


In closing:

Hindsight is 20-20, but despite the ironic twist about Garfield ultimately dying from infection caused by his doctors’ hands rather than the bullet, it’s hard to blame his doctors for causing the infection.  Sterile hands and instruments just weren’t a thing those days, and they worked with the prevailing wisdom of the time. On the other hand, if they had been more open to letting Alexander Graham Bell search for the bullet on Garfield’s left side, it may have possibly avoided some of the subsequent bullet-hunt activity. Garfield had been stabilized, so this wasn’t a completely time-critical issue. They probably gave up on Bell’s technology too quickly

Go forth and transform.


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