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How Non-Health Care Organizations Come Up With New Ideas and Approaches


By Peter Coughlan, IDEO

In my work helping various types of organizations to create cultures of innovation, I consistently find three things that enable some organizations to be more innovative than others.

Capacity to Empathize With Customers

The first enabler of innovation is a capacity to empathize with customers. Most employees don’t start out lacking empathy for customers—but a focus on optimizing a specific work function often puts "understanding customer needs" on the low end of the priority list. As a result, most employees (in an effort to do their jobs well!) actually lose touch with their customers. A typical organization is fortunate if 10 percent of its employees actually have day-to-day contact with customers. So how do the other 90 percent understand what their customers care about, how they feel about the company’s products and services, and what it’s like to walk in a customer’s shoes?

In the most innovative organizations we’ve seen, all employees (no matter their rank) are expected to spend time with customers—not just by watching them behind the one-way mirror in a focus group room or reading about them in a monthly customer satisfaction report, but by actually talking with them, visiting their homes, or shopping with them. Spending time with customers helps you realize the best way to use your innovation muscles—by creating better experiences for them! So, if you want to inspire innovation, spend time with customers.

Time and Space to Generate (Lots of) Ideas

The second enabler of innovation is time and space to generate (lots of) ideas. As Linus Pauling once said, "The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away." My team at IDEO has visited with organizations that have no formal way of generating new ideas. We’ve also seen organizations whose output from a brainstorm session is three or four ideas—usually ideas that people had before they came to the meeting. Innovative organizations recognize that it takes skill (and time and space) to brainstorm effectively, and that you need to practice that skill if you want to remain good at it. They regularly hold brainstorming sessions, invite anyone to attend, and have a shared set of rules and tools to support brainstorming.

An Ability to Share Half-Baked Ideas

The third enabler of innovation is an ability to share half-baked ideas. Make no mistake—coming up with new ideas for a company is important stuff—so important that most people go to great lengths to make sure that, a) they get credit for an idea they came up with; and, b) they’ve had a chance to work through every little detail before they show the idea to someone else. By this time, everyone is afraid to say anything bad about an idea—at least not to the owner's face!

One large consumer goods firm we worked with asked us to help them get better at killing ideas that had gotten too far in the organization. Instead, we taught them how to get ideas out in front of customers and other stakeholders while they were still half-baked—before the owner was too invested in the idea, and while it was still early enough to make big changes (or to throw the idea out). The most innovative companies have figured out how to create "$10/1 hour" prototypes that help make an idea tangible and sharable. Sharing an idea early means that more people get to help make it a better idea.

While it’s difficult for most organizations (regardless of industry sector) to develop new behaviors, I challenge health care organizations to think about how they can adopt these enablers in order to deliver breakthrough experiences and to achieve great outcomes.



About the authors: Peter Coughlan is a partner and practice leader at IDEO, one of the world’s leading innovation consultancies. Peter heads up IDEO's Transformation practice, a group whose focus is helping client organizations to become more innovative. This practice has worked with organizations in sectors as diverse as government, biotech, education, automotive, and health care.

 

Last updated: March 24, 2008.