Four attributes of an innovation culture

by Naomi Fried on October 2, 2014

Fried_NaomiNaomi Fried, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, will lead a panel on Innovation Acceleration at Taking on Tomorrow: Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards (October 30-31, Seaport World Trade Center, Boston). Register now!

The word innovation gets thrown around a lot these days by people trying to set their products and ideas apart in the marketplace. But when everything is innovative, is anything really innovative? And if there really are innovative ideas, 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 at Boston Children’s Hospital, where I lead the Innovation Acceleration Program. 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?

1.  People must feel safeto 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 one of our well-respected clinical department heads volunteered that his great idea had been an abject failure. No one at the meeting berated him or mocked him, but instead listened for the lessons learned. When our leaders show they can learn from innovation failures, they inspire others to be innovators.

2. An innovation culture is open.

Organizations with a thriving innovation culture are filled with people who are nonjudgmental and welcoming. They are open. 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 example is work done by our parking and Commuter Services Office to streamline the return of valet-parked cars to 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 that meant a lot to our patients and families.

3. An innovation culture makes time for innovation.  

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. For example, 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.”

4. An innovation culture requires resources for testing and developing ideas.

That includes seed money, software expertise, space and, most importantly, advice. Mentors and innovation experts who can share their lessons are a valuable institutional resource. Learning the ropes from experienced innovators is a great way for novice innovators to get started.

We are extremely fortunate at Boston 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, a dedicated software development team and many institutionally supported opportunities to share ideas and learn from each other.

Just ask Karen Sakakeeny. Karen is a nurse who, after 33 years at Boston Children’s, decided to try her hand at innovation with a hat for rewarming infants undergoing open-heart surgery. Thanks to an Innovestment grant and the support of a team of innovation and patient-care experts, Karen navigated the process quite successfully. We are excited to soon use the thermal hat for babies that she built and tested.

Almost five years into our team’s work, we’ve become a hospital culture that supports innovation. We look forward to helping spread that culture globally and sharing what we’ve learned.

Join us at the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2014 on October 30-31 at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center. Seats are limited, so register today at Please use the code VECTOR at check-out for a 10% discount.

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