From architect to 'chief business innovation officer': How St. Jude's newest exec is reimagining the business of healthcare

"Chief business innovation officer" isn't a title you hear every day. But Catherine Corbin — who  is pioneering the role at Memphis, Tenn.-based St. Jude Children's Research Hospital — is an architect by trade. She's used to building things from the ground up. 

Although she spent much of her career in design, Ms. Corbin is no stranger to healthcare. She was staffed on a healthcare team in her early days as an architect, and soon fell in love with the field, she told Becker's

"I quickly learned that what I loved about designing for healthcare is you are very close to the people that you are ultimately trying to solve the problems for: patients, doctors. In other words, you can see the meaning that your work has pretty tangibly," Ms. Corbin said. "And healthcare is an incredibly complex system. Having to think in a systems fashion to solve those problems was something I really appreciated about it, so much so that I wanted to change careers." 

Ms. Corbin returned to school and got her MBA, focusing on finance and healthcare management. She served a few years in healthcare administration before transitioning back into design — this time providing strategic and operational consulting to healthcare organizations. In her most recent role as a managing director at the design firm IDEO, St. Jude was one of her clients. 

"The unique lens that I'm bringing to the team now is how to use creativity very intentionally in problem solving and designing a way forward that increases our odds of having an innovative solution or outcome," Ms. Corbin said. "So it's that commitment to trying to do things differently than how we've done them in the past — but different in a methodical way, not just different for difference's sake." 

Her different title, chief business innovation officer, acknowledges the new role's nuance, Ms. Corbin said. Innovation is embedded into the "research" side of St. Jude. Now, she is bringing it to the business side, using her design-oriented approach to help execute the organization's $12.9 billion strategic plan — a six-year track to add 2,300 jobs, $2.3 billion in construction and multiple areas of research.

The responsibilities, as they are defined, are twofold. First, she works with other members of the C-suite, providing direction on translating ideas from the strategic plan into a working business plan. Second, she coaches others across the organization to use skills that support innovation. This will "advance what they are working on and make employee innovation a part of the culture and experience at St Jude," she said. 

There is still some ambiguity in her new role, although it was left that way intentionally, Ms. Corbin said. The flexibility allows her to gauge what would be most valuable to the organization rather than working off a prescribed formula that may or may not be the right fit. Her design background has made her comfortable assessing that gray area, viewing a situation from multiple perspectives. 

"Healthcare is a business, and yes, we do need to look at it through a business lens. But I would argue that we are better served when we look through multiple lenses at the same time, trying to strike a balance amongst them," Ms. Corbin said. "If you don't, I have found in direct experience and years of working in the industry, you risk being tone deaf to an industry which has — literally — people at the center of their business everyday: patients, families, doctors, nurses, researchers, clinicians." 

Ms. Corbin looks at healthcare using a design-thinking approach, which she described in four tenets: 

  • Desirability — what people want and need, what problem needs to be solved for the people affected by a certain challenge

  • Feasibility — technical considerations, operational considerations, what has to be made or put in place in order for a plan to work
  • Viability — how economically viable and sustainable a certain solution might be
  • Responsibility — consider any unintended consequences and if the solution addresses a wide range of people

She understands that asking people to do things differently requires a certain level of trust, but she says she's committed to building it, and rallying enthusiasm for innovative ways of thinking across St. Jude. 

"Having worked in healthcare for almost 20 years, I know that there's plenty of opportunity for things to be improved, enhanced or experimented with to find new and better ways of doing them," Ms. Corbin said. "That's at the heart of the research that we do, and I'm excited to apply that same spirit to the business side of the organization."

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