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CIO Unplugged 2/13/13

February 13, 2013 Ed Marx 5 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Experience is Not the Best Teacher

2-13-2013 7-42-18 PM 

We took our youngest child Talitha on her first visit to Kauai so she could visit her grandparents. Yes, the same couple who offered me a bribe years earlier not to marry their daughter. They had retired in a condo, high overlooking the Na Pali coast.

One day while they babysat Talitha, we headed out for adventure with our eight-year-old son Brandon and German exchange student Sonja. We began our day intent on making it to Secret Falls, only accessible by foot.

We rented two kayaks, donned lifejackets, and started paddling up the Wailua River to the remote trailhead two klicks away. The evening before, a major storm passed through, so our outfitters warned us that the river would be more challenging than normal to navigate.

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Julie and Sonja paddled smoothly and held a great line down the middle of the river. Brandon and I had a difficult time keeping the keel pointed upstream as we beached the banks. A mile in, we came to a choke point where the placid river channeled into a quarter of its normal width, creating a high velocity flow with rapids and eddies.

The women stopped short of the rushing waters and, of course we men would show them how to row into the straight, like salmon looking to spawn. Hal way in, I realized we had no chance. I tried to turn the kayak 180 and go back down in search of an alternate route.

The kayak flipped. I fell out, and the current sucked me 10 yards downstream into a recessed pool. The upside down kayak remained in the fray, tangled in branches and storm debris.

The women witnessed the event and moved in as close as they could where the waters were manageable. No one could see Brandon, and we were afraid he’d been swept under and caught in debris. A muffled “Help!” reached our ears. Trapped under the kayak, he could not escape because his life jacket was keeping him afloat in the air pocket.

Julie’s mother-bear instincts kicked in. She jumped into the water and swam to the kayak.

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Grabbing smooth but slippery tree roots along the bank, I pulled myself to the other end of the vessel. Between the two of us, we were able to flip the craft. Brandon floated into the calm pool to safety. We decided the best course of action would be to carry our kayaks on land past the channel and then get back in.

While we collected ourselves, a man and his son rowed past us. They had observed the scene and congratulated us on our remarkable recovery. They then proceeded past us thinking they could muscle their way through the current. Sure enough, at the midpoint, the father turned the kayak to head back. As if a bad rerun, they also flipped, and the kayak got stuck in the same spot.

The dad stayed upstream, holding onto branches. His son was nowhere in sight. No muffled cries for help. He had seat belted himself in. So not only was he under the kayak, but upside down submerged.

I jumped back in and made way to the kayak. We could not flip it given the physics with his son as anchor. Reaching under, I pulled at every strap I could find to break the boy free. Likely seconds but seemingly minutes, he was freed. We eventually got him to shore, shaken but alive.

Julie and I talked afterwards and wondered why on earth our fellow paddlers made the decision to copy our near tragedy. After observing our experience, why would they even want to follow our path? Sure, had we been successful it would have made sense. But we nearly lost our son.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Had this father taken note of my journey, he would have spared his son fear and trouble.

So it is in work. Why do we insist on replicating other leader’s and organization’s failures? Why don’t we take advantage of other’s experiences, both the good and the bad? Is it pride? Is it a feeling of invincibility? Arrogance? Fear?

The next time you embark on a journey, make efforts to prepare in advance. Use two parts planning to one part execution. Research leading practices. Study accounts of success and failures related to your endeavor.

I learned this from one of my mentors. Before embarking on our EHR journey, he insisted we contact successful and unsuccessful organizations and learn. I arranged several CEO/CIO meetings with peer health systems where we actively learned from others experiences. It paid off and is now part of my standard way of operating. There’s no reason to risk drowning when we have access to river guides.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Ego would drive me over the falls! “I’ll show that idiot how to do it!” “Sit on the sidelines and watch how its done boy!” These are attitudes that kill patients. Thanks for the insights Ed. Sometimes it is difficult to admit that you do not know it all. But if you can humble yourself, just a little bit, and learn from others, that small amount of humility will return a huge amount of success and save a lot of aggravation and stress!

  2. Quite a chilling story. I wasn’t certain how it was going to end. I’m glad everyone made it alright.

    Why do we replicate failures?

    Perhaps we believe too strongly in the ‘specialness’ of our organization or ourselves? I’ve seen some IT professionals who are so convinced of the uniqueness of their institution, that they can’t see other’s mistakes as relevant.

    Maybe we falsely consider our own skills to be above average? Even those at the top of their game sometimes attribute too much of their success to skill and not enough to lucky chance.

    For our own mistakes, perhaps if we spend too much time asking ‘who’ and ‘how’ and not enough time asking ‘why’, then we may see others’mistakes without understanding how to avoid them ourselves.

    There’s also the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we simply don’t know enough to recognize our inadequacies. Did I study well enough for my first accounting exam? Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about accounting to be sure. (Answer: no, I earned a ‘B’).

    So given the above cognitive biases, what do we do? I agree that getting out of the echo chamber of our organizations is key. Taking the time to teach others about our mistakes is also a boost . John Halamka’s public sharing of the 2002 Beth Israel Deaconess network meltdown is a good example of this. Outside consultants can sometimes play a helpful outside role as well, having seen other organizations succeed and fail at undertakings (yes, I said that with a straight face). I find I get a lot out of staying in touch with colleagues from previous jobs because we have familiarity with each other’s environments and we’re quite comfortable discussing our mistakes.

  3. Ed,

    Wonderful lesson, and I couldn’t agree more. Too many in business and IT let their pride guide them. Why do we think we can implement that EHR, HIPAA, PCI, ERP/SAP project without fully understanding what led to the success or failure of these types of projects at other companies.

    There are so many people willing to help us be successful, but so often we are not willing to ask for that help. There are ‘river guides’ everywhere, we just need to ask for them.

    I’m glad there was a happy ending to the story!! Thanks for sharing…

  4. Ed
    I’m glad you are all ok and having the pleasure of briefly meeting Julie I had the confidence that it would all end well. A survivor on many levels and never underestimate the brute strength of a Momma Bear!

    The advice and insight is valuable. Whenever I reach out for advice I always ask about the lessons learned and have to clarify the good and the bad please. You would be surprised how many chuckle when I do.

    We all like to think that we do all things well and if only the intentions translated into a 100% success. What am I curious to ask is how much did the macho male ego have to do with the course taken? We all have a choice of being humble or being humbled.

    As always thanks for sharing!

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