Innovation: Is it just lightning in a bottle?

by Naomi Fried on October 19, 2011

Innovation isn't simply random flashes of brilliance, but requires a culture that supports great ideas while allowing the freedom to fail.

The word innovation gets thrown around a lot these days by people trying to set their products and ideas apart from everything else out there. But when everything is innovative, is anything really innovative? And if there really are innovative ideas out there, are they simply flashes of brilliance that can’t be planned for or predicted?

The answer to this last question is “no,” as I see every day as Chief Innovation Officer here at Children’s Hospital Boston. The real trick is creating an innovation culture that supports great ideas – but that also supports the not-so-great ideas that teach us almost as much.

So what are the attributes of an “innovation culture”?

First, people must feel safe – to experiment, to take risks and, most importantly, to fail. Failure is a critical ingredient of innovation; progress rarely can be made without it. To make people feel safe to fail, there must be no significant penalties for failure. In fact, we need to look at failure as an opportunity to learn what went wrong so we can do better the next time. And we have to encourage our innovators to share what didn’t work and what they learned, and then go back to the drawing board to try again.

I knew we were well on our way to creating a safe innovation environment when, at a recent meeting, one of our well-respected clinical department heads volunteered that his great idea had been an abject failure. No one berated him or mocked him, but instead listened for the lessons learned and moved on.

Second, an innovation culture is open. People are nonjudgmental and welcoming. All types of innovation are accepted. Just as it’s okay to fail, it is okay to have small-scale successes and improvements, not just the really big new ideas. Just as “the perfect can be the enemy of the good,” we need to make sure that our preoccupation with paradigm-shifting, disruptive innovation doesn’t cause us to denigrate the value of incremental, small-scale innovation. In fact, small changes can often add up to something big.

One great and recent example is work done by the parking and Commuter Services Office to streamline the return of valet-parked cars to our patients’ families leaving the Emergency Department. In five months, their hard work resulted in being able to return almost 90 percent of the cars in less than 15 minutes, a major improvement in throughput.

It’s much easier to catch lightning in a bottle when you’ve created the atmosphere for brainstorms.

Third, an innovation culture is one in which the innovator feels supported. That support can take many forms. For starters, people need the time to innovate – to notice problems, brainstorm new ideas and test their theories. It’s hard to create a culture conducive to innovation if people don’t have time to reflect and think. To foster innovation, Google allows their engineers to spend 20 percent of their time away from their assigned projects, experimenting with new ideas. Half of Google’s new innovations have come from ideas developed in this “20 percent time.”

To make an innovation a reality, people also need access to resources for testing and developing ideas – including seed money, software expertise, space and, most importantly, advice. Guidance and support (especially when things are failing!) go a long way in creating an innovation culture. Mentors and innovation experts who can share their lessons are a valuable institutional resource. And learning the ropes from experienced innovators is a great way for novice innovators to get started.

Just ask Karen Sakakeeny. Karen is a nurse who, after 33 years at Children’s, decided to try her hand at innovation with a hat for rewarming infants undergoing open-heart surgery. With an innovation grant and the support of a team of innovation and patient-care experts, Karen is now navigating the innovation process quite successfully.

We are extremely fortunate here at Children’s to have leaders who understand that building an innovation culture requires resources. They supported the formation of the Innovation Acceleration Program team and have provided time, money and space for innovation. We have a seed fund for clinical innovation, the Innovestment Grant program, the FIT software development team (which focuses on developing innovative new technology solutions), and many institutionally supported opportunities to share ideas and learn from each other.

But changing people’s attitude toward failure and creating a safe and open environment takes time, work and commitment across the organization. A year into our team’s work, we’re well on our way to becoming a hospital culture that supports innovation – and proving that it’s much easier to catch lightning in a bottle when you’ve created the atmosphere for brainstorms.

Naomi Fried, PhD, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s first Chief Innovation Officer. Her mission is to build and develop a program in clinical innovation, aimed at improving care quality and assisting the hospital in shaping the future of healthcare. Read more about her on our Bloggers page or the Innovation Acceleration Program website.

1 comment

  • Shereen

    I like this article a lot, though I’m working in a different field, mainly IT, but I see lots of similarity to the innovation process and principles. This culture, I believe, is required to push for innovation environment regardless of the business domain or profession. 
    It does really make a difference to go outside and think, make your mind free to see different things and absorb, then it will bring creative thoughts and imagination that will surprise you.

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