The qualities of a strong innovation program: 2 healthcare leaders weigh in

Every healthcare organization aims to provide a creative and collaborative working environment that welcomes opportunities to rethink workflows, tools and more. Corporate innovation programs have increasingly emerged as a key vehicle to drive these efforts in healthcare.  

Two healthcare leaders discussed why innovation is so important and shared the characteristics of a strong innovation team during a Nov. 11 panel at Becker's CEO + CFO Virtual Event. 

Healthcare executives on the panel were: 

  • Rick Shumway, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare in Livermore, Calif.  
  • Susan Turney, MD, CEO of Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic Health System

Here is an excerpt from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. To view the full session on demand, click here.

Question: What are the characteristics of a strong innovation program?

Rick Shumway: The first is you have to have a culture of psychological safety. People need to feel like they can step out on a ledge and step out on a limb in thinking differently about how we do things or have done things. If people are afraid of what might happen if they try something and it doesn't work, they'll stop trying, and they'll stop talking, and then the reality is, your innovation program, as well-structured and well-meaning as it might be, really stalls and doesn't work in the way that it needs to.

The No. 2 thing is not just the ability to fail, but the ability to learn after that failure and to learn very quickly. Obviously, failure is the antithesis of what we try and become as healthcare organizations. The stakes are very high, so failure is something that's scary to people for good reason. But we have to make sure that it's OK for people to get comfortable with that concept and then to pick up the pieces very quickly and rearticulate. So making sure you have systems in place to quickly assimilate failure information and then make changes subsequently as a result is important.

Dr. Susan Turney: I would agree. I think one of the things you mentioned is that although you need to have leadership that is directly dedicated to innovation efforts, that is not where innovation will likely happen. It really happens from the people who are doing the work on the ground and coming up with great ideas, so that really needs to be baked into an organization's culture. I write a weekly communication to all of our staff, and one of our messages consistently is, "Ask questions, make suggestions, tell us how to improve," and it doesn't matter what you do in the organization to bring ideas forward, it matters that you take the time to share, because good ideas have come from across our enterprise from some of the least likely places.

For us, the other piece is that being a fully integrated model of care — where we have our care providers, acute care facilities, research, education and a health plan under one roof — has really allowed us to innovate in ways that we can't in partnership with other commercial payers. We just don't have the volume of patients with some of our commercial payers to make it worthwhile for them to change their processes and procedures. It's not that large national insurers aren't willing to listen and even, frankly, understand the value, but when you have a small patient population, they're just not going to see the tangible savings that they would like to realize to put an entirely new system together. So again, having our own health plan has allowed us to be nimble, flexible and really experiment with new, lower-cost delivery methods that are going to be critical as we go forward in the new paradigm.

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