Human Bias Against Failure Creates Risky Business
Innovation is never without risk.
Money problems, legal issues and outright failure are the most obvious pitfalls for any new invention or concept.
For the new idea’s owner or proponent, one of the biggest risks may be succumbing to “If I build it, they will come” syndrome.
Dreaming of opportunities and advantages creates human biases that can keep proponents from recognizing risks that are staring them in the face.
It is important for every entrepreneur, investor and yes — inventor — to take one step back and look impartially at the risk factors associated with today’s great new idea before moving forward. And, once started, paying attention to challenges and negative feedback can make or break a project’s success.
One of the most tragic recent examples occurred in Flint, Michigan, where its water supply is contaminated with lead, believed to be harming children’s developing brains and nervous systems.
In the face of a financial crisis, a state-appointed emergency manager for Flint decided to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit, and instead to treat and distribute Flint River water to city residents. The move was proposed to save money, but inadequate research and lax regulation allowed a much greater problem to develop.
Despite government regulations for water supplies intended to protect public health, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) did not require the city of Flint to properly treat the water.
Compounding the issue, public officials ignored citizen complaints and other evidence of troubles. A recent article in Scientific American, Students Reveal How They Broke the Lead Contamination Case in Flint, Mich., included a chronology of failures to recognize the problem. In the first example cited, “Citizens in Flint could smell, taste and see that their water was contaminated almost immediately following the switch. But when they tried to bring their concerns to public officials’ attention, they were ignored, dismissed and ridiculed.”
As with any new project, input from end customers, the consumers, should have been listened to and accommodated as much as possible, not explained away.
When students and researchers from Virginia Tech were alerted, their unbiased approach began unraveling the web of denial around the new approach to water delivery:
“We became involved in April 2015 when Lee Anne Walters, a Flint resident and mother of a lead-poisoned child, contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, our research adviser at Virginia Tech. After the city detected elevated lead in the Walters family’s water, and she was refused help by MDEQ, Mrs. Walters took her case to EPA Region 5 employee Miguel Del Toral, who collaborated with our lab to sample her tap water.”
Additional missed opportunities to stop the problem are described in the article.
This travesty is just one real-life example human bias that keeps proponents of innovation from recognizing risk. This challenging process reminds me of a training exercise I used as a Navy instructor, while teaching at the Naval Reactors Facility.
During oral examinations, one technique included asking trainees to choose from a set of answers, including the correct one. While this may seem simplistic and easy, it’s harder than it sounds. The trainees not only had to pick the correct answer but, but they had to justify their choice.
The degree of learning was easy to evaluate, and correct, if needed, when a trainee choosing a wrong answer expounded on their rational for the selection. This established a feedback loop allowing the trainee to not only learn the correct answer but understand why it was correct. This was a key underpinning in the learning methods touted by the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, the man credited with getting our navy underway on nuclear power.
Whether inventing a better mousetrap, training a submarine engineer or overhauling infrastructure — evaluating and recognizing risk is crucial to success.
And in business, my most successful clients know that ignoring risk will often guarantee failure.
Have you missed signs of risk in your business? What were they? What was the result?
Next blog: How can you tell risk from opportunity?
Picture credit: This pipe was potentially made during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Image L0058470 (Wikimedia)