Category

Business

Winning, even if you don’t win (and we did)

Recently our company Scientell won the 2016–17 Monash Business Award in the Micro Business category. My co-Director, Simon Torok, said in his acceptance speech in front of a packed ballroom, ‘We were delighted to have been nominated for this award – and we nominated ourselves, so imagine how excited we are to have actually won.’

A business coach suggested that we enter the award. It was excellent advice, but not just because we won. The entire process of entering, being assessed and then attending the awards night was invaluable for us.

For starters, the nomination process helped us dispassionately assess our business, its activities and ambitions. We had to ask ourselves what our main focus was, what our objectives are, and how we can simply describe the business in a few sentences.

The judging process included making a short presentation at a lunch where we met other small business owners. This led to us catching up with a number of them over the ensuing weeks to share business ideas and look for opportunities to collaborate in future. As any small business owner knows, success comes from relationships. The Monash Business Awards introduced us to lots of people.

Of course, winning generates valuable publicity opportunities. It helped us highlight the value of communication of environmental, scientific and technical information. But even if we had known at the outset that we would not win, we would still have entered, such was the value of the process.

Sponsored by the City of Monash, the Monash Business Awards serve to ‘promote business success and excellence through the recognition of significant achievements and innovations’. The City of Monash, with almost 200,000 residents, is one of Victoria’s most populous municipalities. There are 18,000 businesses in the area.

 

MBA award to Scientell

Rent, don’t buy?

When I was young, my parents always told me that if I wanted to buy something, I should save my money and pay for it outright. ‘Buy, don’t rent’, was their recommendation for procuring everything from a TV set to a house. The logic in this advice was that rent, or its equivalent in ongoing payments, represents ‘dead’ money.

We all used to apply my parents’ logic to software. We’d fork out several hundred dollars for the latest version of Microsoft Office and spend ages feeding the multiple CDs that stored the program into our computers. Then, when it became too annoying dealing with Word 7 when you had only version 6, you would upgrade.

A few years ago, the software industry woke up to the wisdom of my mum and dad – if you are on the supply side, far better financially to get the punters to rent, not buy.

So, Microsoft quietly, but forcefully, pushed their millions of users to a ‘rent’ model. It’s just a couple of dollars a week, they said. You’ll always have the very latest software on your computers, they told us. Say goodbye to version incompatibility.

That’s all fine, but what if you simply want to write stuff and don’t need to be able to import, rotate and link a Pivot table from Excel into Word? I know there are plenty of free programs that will just let you type. But then there’s the challenge in reading other people’s work that they email you in packages like Microsoft Word, with all its associated design elements.

So, we’re back to renting.

Let’s do a quick stocktake of all the software that our company Scientell rents. There’s the Microsoft Office subscription at $10 per month. We pay $60 per month for our accounting software. Delivering our public webinars and teleconferences incur a $12.50 monthly charge. Our web site and email host charges $15. We pay Google $4.58 for hosting documents. Dropbox subscriptions fees of $10.75 a month let us share files.

Take a deep breath and add up those subscriptions: the business subscriptions are $112.83 per month, which is $1,354 each year.

It all quickly adds up. Do we really need all this software and data? Good question – and one that is worth asking regularly. I’ll add a reoccurring note to my calendar to do a stocktake. I just have to ensure that my monthly Internet bill gets paid so that I see it.

 

 

Learning from failure

As part of a major national project on innovation, Scientell has examined the contribution that learning from error and failure can make to innovation and progress. This is part of our work with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) to synthesise a wealth of information into a book on securing Australia’s future. The following is a sad example of failure.

On 29 March 2005, 37-year-old Elaine Bromiley entered a British hospital to undergo routine surgery to clear her sinuses. The mother of two was otherwise healthy.

Problems occurred immediately the anaesthetic was supplied. With no warning, Elaine’s oxygen levels plunged. Her airway was blocked – a most unusual event that happens in fewer than one in 50,000 routine cases of people being given an anaesthetic. The anaesthetist and the surgeon immediately tried to insert a tube into her airway. Additional medical staff quickly arrived to assist, including two recovery nurses, an ear, nose and throat surgeon and another consultant anaesthetist. For 20 minutes, the team desperately attempted to clear her airway.

Sadly, the emergency procedure failed. Elaine was transferred unconscious to the adjacent intensive care unit and died 13 days later.

Elaine’s husband Martin Bromiley was a commercial airline pilot. He knew how his industry would have responded to a similarly catastrophic event. One of the medical team told Martin that ‘maybe when this is investigated something can be learned. But we won’t investigate, not unless you sue or complain.’

‘For me as an airline pilot, that is where everything changed, because to me it is perfectly normal to investigate when something does not happen so you can learn from it, and here we had a situation where somebody was healthy, was going to be made more healthy, and was actually dead. I could not understand why you would not want to learn from it.’

It took some doing, but Martin managed to initiate an independent review of the case.

‘Arguably, it technically was a dream team to deal with this sort of emergency, but what we know happened, if you will excuse the phraseology, was that the situational awareness, the shared mental model of the three consultants, was different. They lost awareness of time; they lost awareness, perhaps more importantly, of the seriousness of the situation; they became fixated – which is not unusual under stress – on intubation to the exclusion of any other options, such as some form of surgical access.

From my background in aviation, I could see very quickly that these were in fact failings in what you refer to as “non-technical skills”: situation awareness, leadership, teamwork, prioritisation, communication, and assertiveness. These same human factors of failings in non-technical skills are the direct cause of 75% of aviation accidents.’

An incision into Elaine’s throat – a tracheotomy – may have saved her life. That it didn’t happen, was not the failings of any individual, but rather the failings of a flawed system.

Today, the findings from the inquest form the basis of training in Australia and elsewhere of healthcare clinicians, particularly those involved in advanced airway management.

The death of Elaine Bromiley was a tragic failure, but it was a failure that people learned from, and one that has improved the way in which emergency operating theatre procedures are conducted.

 

Is there a doctor on this flight?

Scientell is working with the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) to synthesise a wealth of information into a book on securing Australia’s future. As part of this, we have examined the contribution that learning from error and failure can make to innovation and progress. This example demonstrates the way in which the medical profession is learning from the aviation industry’s approach to safety.

Safety is paramount for the aviation industry. Aircraft accidents are infrequent, but when they occur they involve massive losses of life. The exhaustive investigations that follow crashes have produced extensive literature into their causes, and new policies and regulations to improve safety. Research by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into aviation accidents has found that 70 per cent involve human error.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Robert L Helmreich, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, states, ‘Error results from physiological and psychological limitations of humans. Causes of error include fatigue, workload, and fear as well as cognitive overload, poor interpersonal communications, imperfect information processing, and flawed decision making.’

‘In both aviation and medicine, teamwork is required, and team error can be defined as action or inaction leading to deviation from team or organisational intentions. Aviation increasingly uses error management strategies to improve safety. Error management is based on understanding the nature and extent of error, changing the conditions that induce error, determining behaviours that prevent or mitigate error, and training personnel in their use.’

Diagnosis should include data from confidential incident reporting systems and surveys, systematic observations of team performance, and details of adverse events and near misses.

It is now commonplace for medical doctors to learn from the approach to error and failure that has been refined and systematically adopted in aviation.

The error management approach that Helmreich advocates includes:

  • Dealing with latent factors that have been detected, changing the organisational and professional cultures, providing clear performance standards, and adopting a non-punitive approach to error (but not to violations of safety procedures);
  • Providing formal training in teamwork, the nature of error, and in limitations of human performance;
  • Providing feedback and reinforcement on both interpersonal and technical performance; and
  • Making error management an ongoing organisational commitment through recurrent training and data collection.

As physician Dr Lucian Leape, a physician and professor at Harvard School of Public Health, states:

‘The most fundamental change that will be needed if hospitals are to make meaningful progress in error reduction is a cultural one. Physicians and nurses need to accept the notion that error is an inevitable condition, even among the conscientious professionals with high standards. Errors must be accepted as evidence of system flaws not character flaws.’ [1]

 

[1] Lucian L Leape, Error in medicine. JAMA, 272:23, 1851-1857, (1994)

9 things that I learnt in my first year of business

This article was first published on the Flying Solo web site, a site for small business.

In 2014, after 25 years at CSIRO, I established my own science communication business. Now, some 12 months later, here are some of the things that I have learnt about business operations as I transitioned from the corporate world to sole trader to company director.

  1. Establish a work space. Ideally, you will have a dedicated office. If you don’t, try to set aside part of a room where you can leave your work stuff. It helps focus on work in a home environment, and you don’t want to waste time having to gather your resources each time you start work.
  1. Develop a routine. This is important. Commuting to a workplace imposes structure on your work life. On day 1 working for myself I was in my office at 8.30 and have tried to do the same each working day since.
  1. Maintain networks/socialise. Not having people around was the thing I missed about leaving CSIRO. I make up for this with regular (at least weekly) catch-ups with colleagues and former workmates. These meetings are part social and part business – I’m never sure of the precise ratio.
  1. A contact per day. On the top right of my office whiteboard I have written ‘1’. This is my reminder to reach out and contact at least one person each day. Good for business, good for networking, good for the soul. It might be a phone call. It might simply be an email forwarding interesting information.
  1. Attend events. Be known and keep up with advances in your field. Look out for workshops and conferences. I picked up two major jobs at a national conference I attended a couple of months into my new professional life.
  1. Collaborate. It’s often more productive to work with others. Including others in project pitches increases your chances of success. You’ll quickly find this reciprocated.
  1. Join and participate in professional groups. The Australian Science Communicators is very relevant to me. Flying Solo is a great community resource for small businesses.
  1. Get a good accountant and lawyer. You probably want to scrimp and save money here, as I did at first. However, setting yourself up properly maximises your chances of success. Find people you trust. As my accountant advises, ‘Regard me as the person up the corridor at work. If you have a question just ring or email.’
  1. Invest in accounting software. Far neater, more flexible and quicker than doing accounts in a spreadsheet is to use software. Most packages will do much more than a spreadsheet; even issuing and tracking invoices.