January 15, 2024

Innovation in the Face of the Invisible Enemy

Remember that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where Jack Sparrow stumbles ashore, gums bleeding, weak as a kitten? Yup, that's scurvy. For centuries, this mysterious disease plagued seafarers, claiming more lives than cannons and storms combined. Yet the most surprising thing about scurvy was that during this period, the cure was discovered repeatedly - but ignored.

What is Scurvy?

Basically, a lack of Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a vital component for your body to build collagen and without collagen, you literally can’t hold your body together. This is why scurvy is such a nasty disease as your body slowly starts to fall apart.

Alternative remedies

Many people thought that scurvy wasn’t a deficiency in something, but that it was due to eating the salt pork or salt beef on the ship. Others thought it was due to homesickness and sailors who ‘longed for the earth’. They thought the cure was to bring a box of dirt from the home country and to cover the person suffering from scurvy in it and let them take an ‘Earth Bath’. However, some sailors had observed that oranges and lemons seemed to ease the disease but citrus was not credited yet with being a cure.

Initial discovery

In the 17th century, Scottish physician James Lind conducted history's first controlled clinical trial. He divided scurvy-stricken sailors into groups, treating each with different remedies. Guess who bounced back the quickest? Yes – the citrus-guzzling crew. However, Lind's findings went largely ignored, highlighting the challenge of translating observations into accepted medical practice

From scepticism to salvation:

Years later, Scottish naval surgeon Gilbert Blane championed Lind's work and convinced the British Navy to issue lemon juice rations, leading to a dramatic drop in scurvy cases. But the journey wasn't smooth sailing. Naval bureaucracy, logistical challenges, and even the taste of the sour elixir caused resistance. It took dedicated advocacy and persistent experimentation (like adding alcohol to preserve the precious juice) to finally make citrus a staple on warships.

Innovation Beyond the Seas:

As scientific understanding of vitamins grew, the knowledge about vitamin C and its role in preventing the disease spread. Public health campaigns, fortified foods, and accessible citrus fruits contributed to its near eradication in developed countries.

The tale of scurvy's cure reads like a triumph against scepticism and tradition. But there lies an apt metaphor for the challenges of innovation within corporations. Just as stubborn sailors clung to ancient remedies, so too can companies get bogged down in outdated practices, beliefs, and assumptions, hindering the adoption of transformative ideas.

The Citrus Conundrum:

Lind discovered the power of citrus in 1753. Yet, it took decades for lemons and limes to become standard issue on ships. Why? A perfect storm of bureaucratic inertia, entrenched beliefs, and even the unpalatable nature of the cure itself mirrored the obstacles innovation faces in corporate settings.

Scepticism’s Headwinds:

Much like established physicians scoffed at Lind's data-driven approach, corporate hierarchies can be resistant to new ideas that challenge the status quo. Budgetary constraints, risk aversion, and a "not invented here"mentality can create strong headwinds for even the most promising innovations.

Bureaucracy's Barbed Wire:

Naval bureaucracy, with its layers of approvals and vested interests, mirrored the complex internal and political structures of many corporations. Navigating these channels with a disruptive innovation can be akin to sailing through a maze of barbed wire, demanding patience, persistence, and political dexterity.

The Taste Test:

Just as sailors balked at the sourness of lemons, new ideas in a corporation can elicit negative reactions from various stakeholders. Concerns about disruption, potential downsides, and unfamiliarity can make even the most beneficial innovations taste bitter to those accustomed to the old ways.

Takeaways for corporate entrepreneurs and innovators

But just as Lind's persistence and undeniable results eventually convinced the doubters, so too can you in your corporation:

Data as the Compass

Evidence-based decision making, like Lind's experiment, can provide the necessary compass to navigate the murky waters of corporate scepticism.

Champions as the Wind

Dedicated internal champions, like Gilbert Blane for Lind, are crucial to advocate for new ideas and propel them through bureaucratic squalls.

Palatable Innovation

Framing innovations in a way that resonates with stakeholders, making them the "sugar and rum" to the bitter citrus, can increase buy-in and smooth the adoption process.

Celebrating Discovery

Rewarding and recognising successful innovation efforts, just as the Royal Navy eventually did, creates a culture that encourages further exploration and risk-taking.

The saga of scurvy's cure is a timeless reminder that progress, both on sea and in corporations, requires more than just a good idea. It demands a willingness to challenge the established order, navigate scepticism, and make the unfamiliar palatable. So, raise a glass of citrusy inspiration, and let's set sail on a voyage of corporate innovation, ensuring that transformative ideas never get stuck in the bilge!