I believe the healthcare industry's greatest failure rests with its inability to innovate consistently. Collectively, we lack the focus, commitment and risk tolerance to drive transformative change. As a former healthcare administrator, my sense is that we've allowed ourselves to be bound by the perceived constraints of what's been done before and the excuse that “healthcare is different.” The truth is, that kind of thinking is partly to blame for the challenges our industry faces.
Still, I'm convinced—even optimistic—that all this can change.
Today, a 20-year-old with a great idea, basic business sense, perseverance and access to a credit card or crowdfunding site can test an idea in the open market and compete head-on with established players. Particularly in a consumer-driven environment where buyers have increasing control over how their healthcare dollar is spent, ideas that have legs will survive, whether they emerge from tried-and-true players or not.
My concern about health-related innovations that take place outside the traditional healthcare enterprise is that they rarely create end-to-end systems that tie together the various aspects of a person's total health, wellness and well-being. They are designed in isolation. But innovating inside the complexities of health systems isn't a core competency for most. Our cultures sometimes fail to foster risk-taking and exploration. Ground-breaking work can be perceived as outright hostility because it requires constantly challenging the status quo. However, until we have leaders willing to drive true innovation, our industry will continue to lag behind everyone else.
Here's how we can change that:
Make innovation a way of life. Outside of healthcare, innovation is the holy grail of modern business. While many strive to become the next Apple, Google or General Electric, few will achieve such heights. This is because most organizations treat innovation as a program or initiative, rather than a way of life. Much like the core tenet of the Toyota Production System, a willingness and capability for driving innovation must be woven through an organization's DNA. All too often, I hear healthcare leaders succumb to the allure of quick answers. True innovation rarely happens in daylong workshops.
Need-finding is key. Startups don't fail because their technology falls short. They fail because their core product isn't adopted. In simplistic terms, the startup model looks like this: develop a great idea, find a market to monetize it, and then hope it takes off. True innovation stems from discovering a need first, then developing solutions that satisfy that need. When we start with need, adoption is rarely an issue. Importantly, true innovations must meet the hidden needs of end-users and the core needs of the business—simultaneously. Most achieve one or the other, rarely both.
There are rules, but no rule book. As is the case with many forms of complex problem-solving, methodologies and techniques produce results. The same is true of innovation. The rules of innovation come from myriad disciplines including design, economics, strategy, engineering and the humanities, to name a few. But no established formula exists; the repeatable application of these tools is often more art than science and requires both focus and unique expertise.
Innovation is a team sport. The creative collisions that result when people with diverse ways of thinking convene are critical to generating unique insights. But too often, organizations position innovation as the providence of one group of leaders: “If VP A participates, then VP B should, too.” This common approach isn't very useful because it draws too heavily on existing mental models and social interactions. Instead, go deep into an organization to find individuals who see the world differently.
Avoid the tyranny of perfection. In its early stages, innovation is about discovery and exploration. It requires us to forget everything we know about something and look at the problem through a lens of complete ignorance. This allows us to set aside assumptions and what we think we know as the precursor to finding fresh thinking. Sometimes, though, we become enamored with perfection and the fully baked idea. Incomplete ideas leave room for dialogue and contribution from many, which is especially helpful when it comes time to move from idea to implementation.
David Grandy is managing director of the Strategic Innovation Group at architecture and design firm HDR.