Innovation is an ongoing process, not a box to check

How to build a long-term culture of sustainable innovation.
By Jonah Comstock
08:22 am
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One easy mistake for an organization to make is to think of innovation as a project that can be finished. Certainly healthcare systems have seen success with large-scale transformation projects with set end dates that can be said to be concluded.

But the nature of innovation is that it’s ongoing, not just because technology is always advancing, but also because the needs of patients and providers are changing with the world as well.

“The first thing you need to remember that innovation is a verb, not a program,” Emily Kagan-Trenchard, VP of digital and innovation at Northwell Health, told MobiHealthNews. “You’re never done doing innovation. So you can never perceive it as something you’re going to do and then finish. This is a new muscle for the system. It’s the same thing as compliance, it’s the same thing as patient care. It’s what you are.”

We asked a range of innovation experts how to keep that fire alive and build a culture of sustainable innovation. Here’s what they said.

Don’t be a box-checker

The metaphor of “checking a box” came up multiple times in conversations with professional innovators, who have noticed that innovation as an idea has come to hold a caché all its own, apart from the benefits of real innovation.

“Putting a Chief Innovation Officer in place, some people just want to check the box and it’s a problem because if he’s not staffed appropriately, what can he really do?” Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s, said. “He can direct startups to business owners, clinicians, IT. But if there’s no protocol to work with startups, if there’s no set of steps a startup can take in order to get going, then … the innovation group is just a name and an evangelist out there. I mean, a CIO at a well-known organization can be out there giving talks and be almost like a marketing initiative. But that’s not how I would see the value of the position. It’s for sure an approach but it’s not actually materially getting anything done.”

Healthbox President Neil Patel has his own name for these marketing-driven efforts.

“[We have] to make sure it’s not just ‘we checked a box, we had a challenge, we had an ideation section, we did a Shark Tank, we’re innovative and we put out a press release’. That’s what I call innovation theater,” he said. “And maybe that checks a box on something you were trying to do from a marketing perspective, but if that checks your box you don’t really buy in to this idea that innovation needs to be a core competency of healthcare leaders going forward.”

What box-checking approaches have in common, says Kagan-Trenchard, is that they’re superficial, whereas a real commitment to innovation is a deep, company-wide, forward-thinking commitment.

“Digital isn’t going to be this special thing you sprinkle on top, it’s going to be the air we’re going to breath,” she said. “Digital life is real life, and that’s where our company is going to have to be to succeed in the future. It’s really a company-wide transformation in the guise of an app and a website.”

Internal innovation groups lend focus to efforts

That’s one of the reasons an innovation group or an innovation office is important— it’s not that innovation can’t be done without one, but a group helps to focus innovation efforts and make sure they go beyond box-checking.

“Dana Farber, as an example, has been innovating and all of our organizations have been innovating since they started,” Dana Farber CIO Lesley Solomon said on a panel at a recent MassChallenge event. “They don’t need us to necessarily move their ideas forward. We’ve started 30 companies over the last 10 years, I’ve just been there for two. So they were doing good without me. But I think what innovation offices can do is accelerate and motivate and create support.”

Brownstein agrees, and has had a similar experience with Boston Children’s.

“[Innovation groups] can help grease the wheels,” he said on the same panel. “Before we had this infrastructure, we had people within the organization who were trying to get to market who were trying to get things commercialized. It could be done. It wasn’t critical to have an innovation center, but it was incredibly difficult and challenging [without one]. There was no roadmap. We’ve been able to help facilitate and reduce the amount of frustration within the organization.”

Partners HealthCare VP of Connected Health Dr. Joseph Kvedar added that the innovation group also has a role to play when there’s too much innovation, or at least too many disparate efforts.

“The culture of our organization is nonstop innovation; it’s just going on all over the place. It’s never a worry of ours, but I’d say our worry is sometimes corralling it all and making it a strategy,” he said. “… all of a sudden it gets to the point where it feels like you’ve got […] 20 internally developed chatbots, and then what do we do with that?”

Ultimately, it’s about culture

As cliché as it may sound, the most surefire way to make sure an organization is continually innovating is to bake it into the culture, or, as Patel calls it, the organization’s DNA.

“DNA is sometimes static, but you can add to it. You can bring in new people with new perspectives,” he said. “You get a lot of top-down pressure from boards saying ‘We’re about to get our lunch eaten, what are you doing about it’ and you see change that way. So it has to be executive level, board driven, market pressure driven, consumers pushing it— it comes from all sides.”

Kagan-Trenchard says creating a culture of continuous innovation means curbing an instinct to let your innovation group become too closely associated with a particular product.

“I think what’s more important is not to root your definition of innovation in any one product or any one outcome or area of the business, but to fundamentally say ‘can I create a program whose mission is to sew the seeds of innovation, to bring together the talent in a space?’” she said. “Sometimes it’s literally just the space in the work week to even think about innovation or to research and know what’s out there in the landscape because you can’t find the time to pick your head up from your desk. Those are the things that an innovation program is bringing and that’s not just in any one area of the business.”

Finally, creating a culture of continuous innovation requires seeing innovation for the essential need that it is, rather than something extra or nice-to-have.

“If your mindset is that you believe that’s going to give you a chance to survive as a business in the future, you have to think of it as something that lives, breathes, needs to be refreshed,” Patel said. “There’s always new problems to solve, things that you may have solved but not solved completely that will probably change as the consumer dynamics change, the market landscape shifts, as new entrants enter into your healthcare offering, and differentiated services at lower cost and higher quality. Organizations with that innovation mindset will never feel like they can rest on their laurels. It’s the ones who are doing it more for show are the ones that are going to feel like they’re done.”

“Innovating ourselves out of a job”

Paradoxically, as important as innovation groups are, leaders in those groups hope for a day when they will no longer be necessary.

“I think in a perfect world, we should all be hoping to innovate ourselves out of a job, because this should be something that every single physician has as a core set of competencies,” Kagan-Trenchard said. “To foster the curiosity, to be keeping eyes on the landscape, to be making the space in the work week to try new things, to let them fail, and to be constantly incorporating the feedback from the new back into the standard of care and the baseline of practice. That should be everybody’s standard operating procedure.”