Man holding a big antique key in his hand. Very short depth-of-field.

To steal a question from Chris Shinkle’s session at LKNA ’14, how many of us today would have discovered penicillin in our fast-paced, no-time-to-spare, unsafe to fail world?

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 by accident when he returned from holiday and found a messy hospital lab waiting for him. Upon inspection of some petri dishes containing Staphylococcus aureus, he found that they had been infiltrated by  a previously identified mold named Penicillium notatum. Upon closer inspection, he found that this mold had halted the growth of the Staph bacteria. 

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

Dr. Alexander Fleming

Penicillin was a radical innovation. It needed an uncontrolled environment to have a chance to be born. When the “mistake” was noticed, it wasn’t discarded immediately. It was observed for its potential value before being eradicated.

Penicillin is a molecule produced by the mold it is named after. It’s use as a medicine is an exaptation of that molecule. An exaptation occurs when a function (the creation of the molecule) happens for one purpose but was used for another (antibacterial agent). In a very controlled environment, the Penicillium notatum would never have been allowed to emerge and thus, one of our most important medicines might never have been discovered.

In organizations today, we risk a lack of innovation by an over-controlled environment with little room for unexpected results. Our drive to efficiency can unintentionally lead to the lack of the opportunity for innovation to emerge by removing variation from the environment.  When there isn’t any variation allowed in an environment you get exactly what you expect. Innovation doesn’t occur in the simple domain.

Instead of being efficient, David Snowden suggests we should strive to be effective instead. Effectiveness is:

The degree to which objectives are achieved and the extent to which targeted problems are solved. In contrast to efficiency, effectiveness is determined without reference to costs and, whereas efficiency means “doing the thing right,” effectiveness means “doing the right thing.”

Are you finding yourself wondering when it is ok to be efficient? It is ok to strive for efficiency if you are not looking for innovation. Efficiency is not inherently bad in all situations. However, every choice has consequences. If you do need to innovate, you need to allow yourself a little inefficiency to foster the conditions needed for innovation.

Thanks to Chris Shinkle and David Snowden for the thoughts and information that led to this blog post.