Thursday, December 6, 2012

Innovation

I wrote yesterday about a talk I gave in Washington DC the previous day at an international conference on mobile health. Rather than presenting the PowerPoint slides I'd prepared, I decided to simply tell my story, incorporating the facts and figures as I went. The immediate response was pretty amazing. However, I discovered yesterday that the ripple-effect was more far-reaching than I'd have imagined and as far as I can tell, positive.

Throughout the day, I was approached by people who'd heard about my talk from others and who had questions for me. Some were fairly senior officials in US healthcare; fortunately (I think), I had no idea about who they were at the time I was speaking to them. After talking with someone, the next person waiting to speak with me would say something like, "Do you know who that was?"

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been all that deferential anyway, but it was nice not to have been distracted by the position held by each person. Regardless of the position held, a common theme of discussion was innovation. How do we become more innovative in healthcare? 

Whether multinational corporation or government bureaucracy, innovation within large, mature systems has always been a challenge. Large organizations tend to attract people who like structure, organization and well-defined rules (not exactly your creative types) and throughout history, rarely has innovation come from within the orthodoxy. It seems always to come from without.

So my gut reaction to the question, "How does a large, bureaucratic organization become innovative", was simply, "It doesn't."  However, I didn't find that very satisfying and neither did anyone with whom I was speaking.

One man whose title was Director, Innovation said, "I see the problem with innovation; it's us. We're just not the sort of people who can be creative and innovative."

In my head, I heard Scott lamenting, "I'm just not the kind of person who can play bass and sing at the same time."

My almost involuntary response was, "Of course you can! You just don't know how!"

I awoke from my multi-millisecond revery to see the innovation director looking at me expectantly without a hint of skepticism or doubt. His expression shouted, "How? Tell me how!"

Before I had time to think, I heard my mouth say, "Rudiments. It's all about rudiments. You learn innovation by practicing little innovations."

This provided my brain just enough time to catch up as he asked, "What kind of rudiments? Can you give me an example?"

I said, "Sure. Have you ever spent significant time using your opposite hand? One time, I went for three months doing everything normally done with my right hand with my left. I learned all sorts of things I'd never have learned otherwise."

"But how did that help you become more innovative?"

My brain fully caught up, I said, "To be innovative simply requires you to be comfortable when exposed to stimuli and situations that are completely foreign to you. The more comfortable you are, the more open you become to situations and stimuli you usually avoid or ignore. As you open yourself to these, you start to see the patterns and opportunities that normally evade you."

He slowly nodded his head parsing what I'd said.

I continued, "Anyone is capable of innovation. It's a learned skill, not a gift. Some of us come with it factory-equipped; others have to get it aftermarket. Nonetheless, anyone can be innovative. The trick is that innovation is learned through doing, not through studying."

He responded, "So, I have to practice innovation like I'd practice my golf swing?"

"Yes, and no", I said. "It all depends on how you practice your golf swing. If you practice by replicating what someone taught you, then no. However, if you practice by listening to your body and making changes as they occur to you, then yes."

"Mmm... Hmm..."

"That's why it's important to start with things for which you've never been trained, things that you have to figure out on your own. The goal is to break down the neurological dams that limit thought-flow to the streams you've developed."

"Uh, huh."

"Much of formal training involves dam building: you know 'Do it this way; never do it that way'. So, if you start in an area in which you were formally trained, you end up fighting voices that are telling you, 'no!' The key is to come at the dams orthogonally. You want to find an activity in which you haven't been trained that requires a flow through the same dam. The simpler the activity, the better."

"So, write left-handed for the next three months?"

"Yeah, or without a GPS or map, take a different route to work every day."

"And that will make me more innovative?"

"I don't know. That'd be up you, but it couldn't hurt."

Happy Thursday,
Teflon

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