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The maggot method Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

After an early U.S. Civil War battle, the Union army retreated from the field, leaving the Confederate surgeons to treat the wounded -- starting with their own, of course.

The battle was so bloody that it took the surgeons three days to complete their surgeries and treatments. At the time, the standard treatment for a saber wound was to take the muddy, bloody uniform from a dead soldier lying nearby, shred the cloth, such as it was, and bind the wound to stop the bleeding.

These soldiers often were left aside for days. If gangrene developed, doctors resorted to amputation as the only possible course of action to save the life.

As the unfortunate Union soldiers lay in the fields, many died who might have otherwise survived with proper treatment. But many who managed not to die were found days later -- and with clean wounds. One surgeon, whose name is not known, very closely observed one such case and was startled to see that maggots were crawling around in the wound.

As you may know, maggots eat only dead flesh. This surgeon reasoned correctly that a fly had landed on the open wound, laid eggs, which then hatched, and the resulting larva fed upon the blood and dead tissue, thus "cleaning" the wound.

Now, you and I may look at that wound and gag. We might have asked an orderly to "clean" the wound. But that particular surgeon performed an important, incredibly powerful act, one that is fairly rare in modern business: He made a keen observation, unadulterated by preconceived perceptions and beliefs, then proceeded to transform it into cold reasoning, no matter how counterintuitive the deductions seemed.

He reasoned that if you purposely took those maggots and "infected" a wound with them, they would clean that wound.

The Northern and Southern doctors were trained at the same medical schools before the war, yet only this one Confederate doctor saw and reasoned appropriately. So significant was this insight that it was kept as a military secret for the remainder of the war, resulting in Confederate soldiers returning to the front lines to fight again in much higher percentages than their Northern brethren -- a tremendous competitive advantage.

Now for the moral: You need to conduct an unbiased examination of your own business, then undertake some ruthless reasoning. Consider these grand strategies:

1. Concentrated growth -- This often is the comfortable strategy of choice, and at times, it's the correct one, but not always. Is there a growing need for your product or service? Can you continue to provide a strong competitive advantage?

2. Market development -- Have you considered a new or nontraditional market for your product or service? Instead of going head to head with local competition, you may find a nonserviced, untapped customer base in a different market. Or you may consider opening a sales office in Cleveland, exporting with a joint venture partner, or even entering the European Union with a complete facility somewhere in Europe.

3. Product development -- With evolving market needs and wants and quantum technology advances, developing new products or services may be key to your survival. This may be as simple as changing the compilation of your product or services mix.

Learn to look at your firm and your industry as a whole, without preconceived conclusions -- then explore promising options. By the way, field doctors practiced the medical use of maggots as far back as the Napoleonic wars, 150 years before our Civil War. It's interesting how common knowledge can be so easily lost. Do you think you have lost any?

Lance Kurke, Ph.D., is president of Kurke & Associates Inc., a Pittsburgh-based executive education and strategic planning firm. He also is president of the CEO Club of Pittsburgh, serves on the faculty at Duquesne University and is an adjunct at Carnegie Mellon University. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or at lance@kurke.com.