Two Reasons for Failure


I was fortunate to attend the most recent Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. If you don't know it, you probably should. There are a lot of smart and motivated people swarming around social impact and many of them were there.

Atul Gawande, the doctor and author, talked through some thoughts (that he has written about and credits to two philosophers from 1975) on why doctors, and people in general, fail. What are the causes of human fallibility? They boil it down to two reasons — ignorance and ineptitude.

Sometimes we fail because of something we don't know. We are limited creatures and have limited knowledge of the world, but we counter that with a insatiable drive to research, analyze, and learn. It has really been a defining characteristic of humans.

And, other times, we fail because we do not apply the knowledge we have. This is what philosophers call ineptitude. We know what causes things to happen and how to fix issues, but we fail to deliver on the solution.

In the arena of social impact, since 1975, our knowledge has increased exponentially. We don't know everything, but we know a lot more about the world and what makes it and the flora and fauna that inhabit it tick. So, ignorance, as a cause for failure, is diminishing.

Many failures of seemingly intractable problems of the world tend to now stem from failure to deliver. For instance, we know how to cure tuberculosis, but the challenge now is how to deliver that cure to everyone on the planet who has the disease.

We have resources and we know that both human and financial resources can do a great many things to improve the world. Now, a matter of delivery and deployment. Investment and imagination should be going into aligning resources to deliver benefit. People are a great resource (maybe the only true resource) to make society improve. Let's put them to work.