Every organization talks about innovation, but all too often they view it as something external — a new technology to adopt or a device to purchase. Rather than foster an internal culture of innovation, they watch for others to emerge in their industries and go no further than a build-vs-buy evaluation of something already created by someone else.
In healthcare, a lack of innovation culture can lead to suboptimal patient outcomes. Lives and futures depend on systems, processes, and clinicians’ skills and actions. We must constantly update the ways we provide care to meet a fast-changing world whose rate of change will only increase. The most effective innovations bubble up from practical needs recognized and developed by frontline care teams in the real world. Over my 15+ years of ongoing work on the front lines of emergency medicine I have seen this firsthand.
Healthcare organizations are largely made up of people who pour their hearts and souls into working long hours trying to bring better health to as many people as they can. But typically at the organizational level, these frontline folks’ passion, dedication, and practical solutions are not captured, leveraged, and widely shared.
Here are three foundational approaches healthcare leaders can use to let the experience and insights of care teams fuel innovations that the organization can develop and bring to the world. The challenge is that each approach may run counter to company culture. The organization must actively choose, plan, and act to create a place inside its walls where innovation isn’t a buzzword but part of the core mission.
Tie innovators to real-world needs, not revenue
Trying new ways to improve outcomes is part of a big-picture business strategy, but it isn’t always a new product line. It’s too common for innovators to be challenged from the start to justify their own jobs by reporting ROI on their projects, as if they were the business development team. Impatient executives may see innovators’ exploration as wasting time, burning cash, or ivory-tower pontificating.
I’m not suggesting that self-styled innovators do whatever they want. Rather, keep them connected with and listening to care teams in the real-world. What frustrates physicians trying to diagnose and treat patients today? How would nurses be able to spend more time on care, or just less on repetitive data entry? Are there new applications of machine learning and other technologies that would actually improve outcomes? These are front-line challenges where advanced expertise could find the most optimal ways to apply emerging technologies and approaches. Step back from insisting everything be proven profitable before it’s even developed.
Accept some failures as part of success
Large companies tend to attract professionals whose top skill may be not getting fired. They’ll never make a big mistake, because they’ll never take a big risk. They’re great at identifying problems, but not at proposing solutions that could fail. They know that if the entire organization fails in the long term, no one will blame them personally — hey, they worked hard to turn things around! On to the next role at the next company.
It needs to be OK to take big risks, as failures are necessary steps in the path to future success. Any parent knows children learn to walk by falling down a lot. Of course, people tasked with innovations should be evaluated on their work, but the success or failure of the would-be innovation shouldn’t be the sole metric of their personal performance.
Rather, they should know it’s on them to do everything they can to navigate their bright idea all the way to clinical practice, and keep the organization informed of unexpected setbacks or unforeseen obstacles that prove impassable. Accepting the right failures is wise for the organization, because often those who have failed before are now the best qualified to succeed this time.
Look outside, then grow within
Organizations often do look at what others are doing, but only in a “should we get that, too” way. Build-vs-buy projects too often pass for innovation when they’re more like shopping. Beyond evaluating what to adopt that others have, look at how an innovation elsewhere can be applied in a parallel but different way to the challenges your organization seeks to conquer. Squelch the organization’s natural tendency toward “not invented here” dismissal of ideas from outside. Reward curiosity and research instead.
Explore other industries and look for parallel benefits you could bring to yours. See how food delivery has removed the phone tag and clumsy online forms that still hobble patients trying to schedule with physicians and clinics. Find out how banks digitized and automated financial transactions in ways that would literally change the economics of medical claims processing. You might even find a way to work with other companies to co-develop a new approach.
Fostering innovation at large organizations is a challenge. Just talking about how to do it is an industry in itself. For many, though, the place to start is to create a space and a structure inside the organization where it can happen. Connect innovators to real-word care teams. Give innovators guidelines that reward hard-fought failures. Look outside your organization and industry for breakthroughs to adapt, rather than products or procedures to adopt. Innovation isn’t something you acquire. It’s something you grow from within.
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