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CIO Unplugged – 4/1/10

April 1, 2010 Ed Marx No Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally, and are not necessarily representative of Texas Health Resources or its subsidiaries.

Why Healthcare Innovation Sleeps
By Ed Marx

“That’s against the rules.” “We don’t allow that here.” “Were you this much trouble where you came from?” “You have great potential…if only you’d follow the process.” “That’s not the way we do things here. Who gave you permission to do that?”

Thoughts of preschool and kindergarten bring back fond memories. I spent three years attending French schools while living in Southern Germany. And I recall the schoolmasters’ many rules as they attempted to shape us into well-behaved and homogeneous boys and girls.

Thankfully, I didn’t turn out too homogeneous. I kept coloring outside the lines and still survived with my dreams and aspirations intact. Originality is an inexorable part of my DNA.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

Innovation is the rage today. More books on innovation exist than ever before. In the last few months, I’ve spotted at least a dozen major magazines with innovation in the headline. Organizations intellectually understand that they must innovate to achieve competitive differentiation and drive customer preference. Yet, creativity still sleeps, especially in healthcare. Oh, we talk about transformation with gusto. But we resist taking action on our dreams, which puts our survival at stake.

As mentioned, many books and articles offer explanations for the lack of innovation in healthcare, so I won’t repeat those. Rather, I’ll focus on what I believe is the primary reason for innovation sleepiness in healthcare—the systematic elimination of creativity in the very people we expect to innovate. We desire it. But once we see it, we fear it. Our fear turns into control. We either chase the innovators out or force them to conform. For those who stay, their passion is laid to rest.

This type of mental programming starts when we’re young. Rules and societal norms are forced upon us. Generally speaking, rules are important for reasons of safety and perhaps developing positive relations with peers. But in a quest for conformity, we inadvertently squelch the creativity in our children.

Some who survive this programming with their imaginations intact are labeled outcasts. Others with artistic talent find careers that suit their gifting (music, theatre, arts). A smaller number of survivors are those inspired scientists, businesspersons, and engineers who either seek out innovative firms or start their own. And any progressive firm that embraces the fusion of creative arts, business, and science doesn’t fit the programmed norm.

So, back up. Where does that leave the remaining survivors—those that end up in non-innovative industries and firms? I’ll apply the following opinions to healthcare. (As if you didn’t see that coming.)

Rather than rushing to embrace, healthcare organizations create innovation adverse environments to control innovation. Control innovation? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Consider the following as a few examples of this type of absurdity: designing identical and rigid performance evaluations for clinical staff and businesspersons alike—ignoring that each role requires different skills, talents, and models for success; requiring uniform décor and attire to the point offices and employees lack distinct character—and working styles are ignored. We expend more energy and resources on developing Policies and procedures than we do on innovation.

We call the above programming “fairness.” But is it? Rabbits might like carrot sticks for a reward, but the bear needs raw meat. And the innovator needs freedom.

Tension between innovation and conformity is necessary to bring progress to an organization. Challenge must never stop. To reestablish the needed balance in tension, we’ve got to wake up and tip the scales towards creativity.

Waking up from our slumber involves disrupting the current patterns. Some practical ideas:

Encourage Innovation

  • Discuss innovation in every leadership message from CEO down
  • Lead by example and innovate yourself
  • Allow for and encourage respectful dissent
  • Surround yourself with creative talent
  • Actively participate in collaborative approaches
  • Have both informal and formal outlets and fund it

Change Culture

  • Allow Non-Conformity
  • Embrace self-expression
  • Reduce the burden of policy on policy
  • Make accommodations for creativity and break rules
  • Reward employees based on their role and contribution
  • Allow for different compensation and incentive models
  • Shelter innovators from political and administrative distractions
  • Expect innovation from all clinical and business leaders
  • Hire and reward for innovation
  • Create cross generational and cross functional teams

Embrace Failure (non-patient care)

  • Advocate merits of risk
  • Remove fear and shame of failure
  • Expect failure (to enable growth)
  • Celebrate reasoned failure

Recommended Resources

Goffee & Jones on leading your smartest, most creative people in Clever

Kelly covering IDEO‘s strategies for beating the devil’s advocate & driving creativity throughout your organization in The Ten Faces of Innovation

Moore on how great companies innovate at every phase of their evolution in Dealing with Darwin

Buckingham and Coffman discuss why they do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom in First, Break all the Rules

By the way, the quotes I used to open this blog post are not from my Kindergarten teacher. They’re from a collection of quotes I’ve received in the work place, an unconscious attempt at programming.

So I encourage you, press on with disruptive innovation and power ahead to transform healthcare.


Ed Marx is senior vice president and CIO at Texas Health Resources in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. (Use the “add a comment” function at the bottom of each post.) You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook, and you can follow him via Twitter – User Name “marxists.”

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