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The Firm That Wouldn’t Wash Its Hands

Source | LinkedIn : By Tim Williams

Paradigms take a long, long time to change. The mental maps we carry around in our heads are etched in neural pathways that both dictate and predict our behavior. If our paradigm is that the world is flat, we navigate very carefully to make sure we don’t sail off the edge.

In a business context, our mental maps are almost single-handedly responsible for the way we structure our firms, manage our people, and charge for our services. And the pitfall we all face is that we mostly have incomplete — or obsolete — maps. We operate as though our mental maps represent the way things really are. But as semanticist S.I. Hayakawa famously observed, “The map is not the territory.”

Hayakawa’s work centered on the idea that we all inherit misinformation that points us in the wrong direction. In effect, we’re on a journey using inaccurate maps that have been handed down by our predecessors.

The Pre-Hand Washing Era

This phenomenon is easiest to observe in the world of science, where paradigms sometimes live unreasonably long lives. When the famed nurse Florence Nightingaleattended to the wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, the reigning paradigm among medical professionals was that infection is caused by “bad air.” So hospitals would open their windows, even in the dead of winter, in the hope of saving the lives of infected patients.

This mental map about infection also produced a host of behaviors that seem inconceivable today, most notably that doctors didn’t bother to wash their hands prior to medical procedures. In the battlefields of the American Civil War, surgeons would operate with unsterilized hands and instruments, not just because of chaotic conditions, but because their paradigm of infection was flawed. It wasn’t until Joseph Lister’s germ theory became widely understood and accepted (which took decades) that medical practitioners began to adopt a saner approach to cleanliness.

It’s in this way that paradigms drive practices. In truth, we won’t really ever change our practices until we first change our paradigm. If we don’t accept germ theory, why would we spend the time and money it takes to sterilize hospital rooms and operating tables? On the other hand, once we do accept germ theory, we wouldn’t think of operating in any other way.

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