Tom, Dick, and Harry: The Innovators

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, February 22, 2008

"Innovation" may be the most over-used word in the leadership dictionary. Come up with a new nursing schedule? You're an innovator. Implement a new patient safety process? It's innovation. Redesign your gift shop? How innovative! Every CEO at every healthcare facility in the country tells me he's focused on innovation, but what really constitutes innovation?

I read an article this week that said true innovation occurs when someone takes an idea that seems impossible and makes it work. If an idea seems possible, it's likely been done before. True innovation is about risks, the unknown, and uncertainties--traits that healthcare organizations work hard to eliminate.

Although most healthcare leaders champion the benefits of innovation, few are willing to take the risks necessary to truly do it. Their definition of "innovation" sounds more like "not new but new to us," and the newly hired "Chief Innovation Officer" ends up being a well-paid meeting facilitator who oversees the implementation of last season's techniques. Is it really possible for senior leaders to combine the uncertainty of innovation with the safety assurances required of healthcare?

Memorial Hospital and Health System in South Bend, IN, has found a way to do both.

I wrote about Memorial's innovation efforts for HealthLeaders' What All Great Hospitals Do issue last fall. Memorial's board-approved innovation policy mandates that fresh thinking occurs at all staff levels, and Innovation Propulsion Leaders, including the CEO, COO, and other executives, meet regularly to ensure that happens.

Memorial uses a low-risk testing method called rapid prototyping to eliminate the risks associated with innovation by testing new processes on a small scale before they are rolled out systemwide. Senior executives used rapid prototyping to plan Memorial's new $40-million heart and vascular center.

"We built the hospital room of the future out of cardboard, foam core, duct tape, towels, and sheets, right down to the computer terminals and bathrooms, " CEO Phil Newbold says. "Then we actually built a room and used that for a while. . .our nursing staff, frontline people, patients, visitors--all kinds of people--had a chance to look at that and experiment with it."

While this type of testing takes time, it ultimately saves resources, Newbold says. And once people start thinking innovatively, over time, they do it quicker, better, and more often.

"Competition," "staffing shortages" and "reimbursement cuts" are the other words I hear a lot from healthcare leaders. In today's healthcare landscape, innovation isn't just a nice-to-have--it's a necessity to overcome challenges. But you have to be willing to balance the gamble of innovation with the inherent risk of healthcare.

Think your organization's innovative? I'd love to hear about it. And, if you think you're truly an innovator, apply to our 2008 Top Leadership Teams in Healthcare award program. After all, true innovation starts with a great leadership team.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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