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Taming your unicorn: creating sustainable innovations

Learning to “fail fast” is a top priority for innovation experts who shared their insights at the CHIME 2023 Fall Forum.
By admin
Nov 29, 2023, 5:04 PM

In innovation circles, many stories revolve around chasing the elusive “unicorn,” those tech startups that “go viral” and generate upwards of $1 billion before going public. But as actual healthcare innovators know, it takes the right culture, governance, and processes to transform our industry, and the results of disciplined processes in real-world settings speak for themselves. 

At CHIME23 Fall Forum, a distinguished panel of healthcare leaders on the forefront of practical innovation interventions shared their insights with a packed gathering of CHIME Members in a track session “Saddle breaking Unicorns: How Disciplined Processes Enable Sustainable Healthcare Innovation.” 

Moderator and 2024 John E. Gall Jr. CIO of the Year, Dr. Shafiq Rab (Chief Digital Officer & System CIO, Tufts Medicine) led the discussion that included these invited faculty members: Elizabeth Cooper, VP, Enterprise Data Services, Tivity Health; Nassar Nizami, Chief Information Officer, Exact Sciences, and Reid Stephan, VP, CIO, St. Luke’s Health System. 

Governance as the Guiding Star

One of the first steps in the healthcare innovation journey is establishing a solid governance structure. This isn’t just about setting rules; it’s about creating a space where ideas can be nurtured and grown. As one panelist noted, the involvement of a cross section of voices at the table is crucial, including IT and senior executives, medical and nursing informatics officers, and even HR and cybersecurity, as well as financial and legal representatives.  

In addition, when venture capital investment representation is added to the mix, it can bring a layer of strategic financial oversight to the task of navigating the complex waters of healthcare innovation. This mix of clinical, technical, and financial expertise ensures that innovation isn’t happening in a silo but is integrated with the organization’s values, goals and financial health. 

The Power of Diversity

Panelists emphasized the richness that diversity in many categories can bring to the innovation table. Neurodiversity, for example, can be a powerhouse of creativity and unique problem-solving. By incorporating various cognitive perspectives, organizations can break free from conventional thinking patterns and explore uncharted territories of innovation.  

Another speaker highlighted the need for diverse perspectives, including different age groups, genders, and ethnicities, to identify opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked. This approach isn’t just about being inclusive; it’s about being smart and tapping into a vast pool of untapped potential, beneficial to a broader set of patient demographics. 

Culture: The Bedrock of Innovation

Innovation thrives in a culture that supports and celebrates it. Panelists highlighted how creating this environment means shifting mindsets to view innovation as an organization-wide responsibility. It’s about encouraging learning from failures (or as one panelist succinctly put it, “learning fast, rather than failing fast”) and recognizing that innovation doesn’t always mean “building rocket ships.” 

This approach demystifies the concept of failure, encouraging teams to take calculated risks and experiment without fear of retribution. Another speaker discussed the importance of making small, meaningful changes that collectively drive significant impact, demonstrating that innovation isn’t always about grand ideas but often about making iterative improvements that consistently “move the needle” towards increased quality and patient safety.   

Balancing Risk and Reward

Reflecting on the extremely high stakes involved in healthcare, panelists discussed how risk is inherent in any significant change. Embracing this risk as part of growth and innovation is crucial, as illustrated by a speaker who shared their experience with developing a new medical device, highlighting the inherent risks involved in such ventures. The panelist’s story underscored the need for healthcare organizations to balance the potential risks and rewards of innovation, finding that sweet spot where taking calculated risks can lead to groundbreaking advancements.  

Finance: The Innovation Enabler

Several comments in the discussion highlighted the pivotal role Finance plays in the innovation lifecycle. The panelists discussed involving finance teams early in the innovation process. One speaker shared how their organization included finance in the governance team to assess the ROI of innovative ideas right from the intake stage. This proactive approach to alignment with business fundamentals ensures that innovation projects are not only creatively viable, but also financially sustainable, aligning with the organization’s fiscal health and strategic goals. 

Overcoming Handoff Challenges

A critical hurdle in the innovation process is the handoff from the innovation team to operational teams. One panelist described the challenges of this transition, including the need for clear communication and process alignment to ensure that new projects, processes, workflows or other interventions are effectively integrated into the organization’s everyday operations, scaling from pilot projects to broader implementations. 

Embracing Failure as a Step-Stone

Several panelists touched upon the importance of being prepared to accept failure as part of the innovation process. This does not imply that executives should expect fully implemented projects to fail, but that through testing new business ideas with customers and end users to gather evidence of likely success, many ideas may not measure up. A high failure rate of early-stage innovation projects before heavy investment is not a sign of defeat, but an indicator of a robust, risk-taking innovation culture. It’s about learning, adapting, and persisting. One panelist suggested that about 90% of projects should be expected to fail during the discovery process. Learning from these failures and adapting based on those lessons is key to innovation. 

To recap, by establishing strong governance, embracing diversity, cultivating a supportive culture, balancing risk, involving finance early, managing handoffs effectively, and learning from failures, healthcare organizations have a much greater chance of “moving the needle” toward successful efforts to innovate at all levels, from the bedside to the boardroom. 

Building on extensive experience in the fields of journalism, media production, and learning design and development, John Marc Green’s newest adventure is serving as Director of CHIME Innovation. In this role, his ongoing conversations with CHIME Members and Partners provide insights and direction to serve their interests in a variety of ways, including digital healthcare innovation journalism, professional development events and program facilitation, and on-demand educational development through CHIME Innovation.

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