What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Physicians

Emerging and competitive markets are complex dynamic systems. Entrepreneurs can learn from physicians how to navigate uncertainty, how to establish and maintain rapport with those they serve, and how to cultivate equanimity in the face of success and failure.

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Physicians

Here are four skills that entrepreneurs can learn from physicians.

  1. Manage an irreducible amount of uncertainty with probabilities.
  2. Rely on simple decisions rules in complex rapidly evolving situations
  3. Watchful waiting enables “first do no harm”
  4. Customer want you to diagnose before you prescribe–and need your prognosis before they follow your prescription.
  5. Keep it simple: take one day at at time.

Manage an irreducible amount of uncertainty with probabilities.

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”
William Osler

I think this applies equally well to entrepreneurs, who must learn to tolerate a high level of uncertainty while holding themselves accountable for the results of their decisions. Osler wrote an essay devoted to the value of equanimity which he called by its ancient Roman name, Aequanimitas, in an essay of the same name. He stressed the value of “Imperturbability means coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, and clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril. The physician who has the misfortune to be without it, who betrays indecision and worry, and who shows that he is flustered and flurried in ordinary emergencies, loses rapidly the confidence of his patients.”

Rely on simple decisions rules in complex rapidly evolving situations

  1. If what you are doing is doing good, keep doing it.
  2. If what you are doing is not doing good, stop doing it.
  3. If you do not know what to do, do nothing.
  4. Never make the treatment worse than the disease.

Robert Frederick Loeb “Loeb’s Rules of Therapeutics”

The first two are straightforward, although it’s surprising how many startups keep doing the same thing that’s not working, hoping “this time it will be different.” The third rule is a warning against action for the sake of action. It does not mean you cannot seek the counsel and fresh viewpoints from peers and others with knowledge and experience with the challenge you are facing. Measure twice, but once is a good rule in situations that don’t involve a clear and immediate danger. The fourth is a reminder that your product or solution should improve the customer’s situation and if that’s not happening you need to find a way to gracefully decommit. Before you start you should form a plan for how you will restore the status quo if your product fails to perform as you expect.

Watchful waiting enables “first do no harm”

From inability to let well alone; from too much zeal fro what is new and contempt for what is old; from putting knowledge before wisdom, science before art, and cleverness before common sense, from treating patients as cases, and from making the cure of the disease more grievous than the endurance of the same, good Lord, deliver us!
Robert Hutchinson

More advice to proceed thoughtfully. Don’t break what’s working in a customer’s business. Cultivate empathy in all of your business relationships to avoid the trap of purely transactional thinking.

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Physicians: Diagnose Before You PrescribeCustomer want you to
diagnose before you prescribe

There are four questions which in some form or other every patient asks his doctor:

  1. What is the matter with me? This is diagnosis.
  2. Can you put me right? This is treatment and prognosis.
  3. How did I get it? This is causation.
  4. How can I avoid it in future? This is prevention.

He may not be called upon to attempt full answers to his patient, but he must give a fair working answer to himself.

Sir George Newman

This is a good list. It’s crucial to realize that customers are not interested in your prescription (your product or solution) until they understand your diagnosis. A diagnosis includes what evidence you are looking at, what alternatives you considered, and why you ruled them out. And they are not willing to follow your prescription–whether it’s advice, your service, or using your product–until they understand and believe  your prognosis–what you are promising as an outcome.

Take One Day at a Time

“I have had three personal ideals:

  1. One to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had — to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.
  2. The second ideal has been to act the Golden Rule, as far as in me lay, toward my professional brethren and toward the patients committed to my care.
  3. And the third has been to cultivate such a measure of equanimity as would enable me to bear success with humility, the affection of my friends without pride, and to be ready when the day of sorrow and grief came, to meet it with the courage befitting a man.

William Osler in “Remarks at a farewell dinner address in New York (20 May 1905)” [Archive]

When you are facing considerable uncertainty some planning is called for, but it’s often a fruitless waste of time to look too far ahead. A good night’s rest is often the best preparation for a challenging day ahead. To the extent that you are treating others fairly and are easy to do business with, it’s much easier to call in favors and ask for assistance when you need it.

Related Blog Posts

Image Credit:Square Focused Targets” by  Santima Suksawat (Licensed from 123RF)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top