Michael in Process 10 minutes

Learning from Ebola Healthcare Workers with Enterprise Problem Solving

In a large enterprise it can be difficult to implement large meaningful change. On many days I have ended up frustrated while sitting down to a margarita during one of my quarterly retrospectives. How do I get through all the opinions and politics to create real, lasting change? After reading about the Lean Startup Cycle, I have a new way of thinking about it, which starts with healthcare workers in West Africa fighting Ebola.

When these brave individuals arrive to risk their lives and help others, they are met with a striking contrast to the first world. As you have probably learned, there are entire tribes of people in West Africa who celebrate the recently deceased within an elaborate ceremony where the entire tribe drinks after the deceased loved one in a shared cup. Science certainly had nothing to do with it, but science does tell us that when the deceased person has Ebola, this is a surefire way of getting the whole village infected. Couple this with the cultural norm that those who are sick should travel large distances to medicine men who will heal them, and you have an epidemic.

So, faced with such a terrible situation of men, women, and children dying every day due to a horrible disease, what do I imagine is the reaction of these healthcare workers? Do they pound their fists and whine, “We could change this situation if these people weren’t being so stupid?” Do they clock in and out, thinking that the problem is just too large and that they will just collect a paycheck so that they can support their family? In other words, is their primary approach to the situation that of frustration?

I think they certainly feel frustration.

However, these people are professional scientists, and they probably follow a much different formula:

First, they start with a hypothesis. They ask themselves, maybe if we visit the tribal leaders we’ll be able to convince them that this practice is dangerous and that will stop the spread of this disease. If the leaders cannot be convince, then they may say that the tribes are a lost cause and that maybe they should lock down the entrances to the cities. I’m sure there are hundreds of ideas that they come up, all without despair, but with a genuine hope that something can be done to improve the situation.

Next, they test the most promising hypothesis. The team may decide to educate the tribal leaders. They then create a short-term way to test their hypothesis. They decide to go to one village and talk to the tribal leaders then pay an informant to record the activities of the next funeral, which is likely to happen in the coming days. They try this with ten villages.

Finally, they measure the results of the test. Out of the ten villages, only two changed their practices. While many of us might view this as a failure, the scientists see this as success. We now know what wouldn’t be helpful. Now we can come up with a better hypothesis and start the process all over again.

This method is what got us technology, medicine, and progress. Why aren’t we using it in the enterprise?