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Creating a Culture of Innovation


By Paul E. Plsek, MS, Paul E. Plsek & Associates, Inc.; author, Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation: The Virginia Mason Experience; former member, Innovations Exchange Editorial Board


An organization’s culture—its values, beliefs, norms—is critical to innovation. Organizations vary in their ability to innovate, depending on the interplay among key success factors. When effective, these factors help support an innovative culture; when absent, they present barriers to innovation.1

A literature review of numerous studies across a variety of industries (but biased somewhat toward health care) suggests that innovation success factors and potential barriers fall into the following six categories.2

1. Risk-Taking Environment

Innovation Success Factors

  • The organization supports people who want to try something new to fundamentally redesign processes, with reasonable precautions to avoid harm to patients or the organization.
  • Formal leaders encourage experimentation to learn and do not penalize innovators if things do not turn out as planned (i.e., giving priority to learning, rather than punishing so-called “failures”).
Potential Barriers
  • The environment is risk-averse.
  • People who try something and make a mistake fear punishment and perceive that they will appear foolish or look bad.
  • Innovation is viewed as tweaking of existing processes, rather than as fundamental redesign.
2. Innovation Targets

Innovation Success Factors
  • Formal leaders provide a motivating vision, a specific focus, and an organizational context for the innovation, without detailing a predetermined solution.
  • The innovation goal is linked to and even stretches the strategic or operational plan, while maintaining compatibility with the organization.
Potential Barriers
  • There is no real commitment to the target.
  • The target is ambiguous and not in line with the priorities of the organization.
  • Formal leaders micromanage by dictating how to achieve the target, thereby preventing other creative options and alternative approaches.
3. Sufficient Resources

Innovation Success Factors
  • The organization’s leaders provide potential innovators with time to devote specifically to the process of innovation.
  • People are given the authority and freedom to decide how to tackle an issue.
  • Leaders provide staff with funding and needed time away from other job responsibilities so they can pursue their ideas.
  • Members of the innovation team include frontline staff who understand the issues.
Potential Barriers
  • Innovation is an add-on responsibility to people’s regular jobs, thus reducing their focus and energy for innovation.
  • The innovation process is relegated to a research-and-development function, separate from the people who have firsthand knowledge of the process.
  • Money and access to data to support investigation and testing are scarce.
4. Open Information, Communication, and Relationships

Innovation Success Factors
  • Information that might help stimulate new thinking is obtained from a variety of sources, both within and outside the organization.
  • Information is shared freely and rapidly, without filters or censors, to help foster innovation.
  • Communication and teamwork throughout the organization are open and trusting.
  • People honor ideas from each other and from nontraditional sources.
  • Team members are diverse and collaboratively approach the issue from different perspectives.
  • There is mutual respect and honesty within teams.
Potential Barriers
  • Information is shared on a need-to-know basis only.
  • To reduce disagreements, teams are homogeneous—with similar skills, experiences, and points of view.
  • Benchmarking activities are not supported because of a belief that “we know everything” or “we are different and it won’t work here.”
5. Training in Tools and Techniques

Innovation Success Factors

  • Innovation is viewed as a deliberate process.
  • The organization supports formal training about innovation and encourages staff to develop their skills and expertise in areas such as problem-solving, brainstorming, and creative thinking.
Potential Barriers
  • The innovation process is exclusively left up to individuals and teams with no experience or competency in innovation.
  • Methods and approaches are so restrictive that they hold back the creative process.
6. Appropriate Rewards and Recognition

Innovation Success Factors
  • Individuals as well as groups are recognized, praised, and thanked for taking risks, innovating, and championing change.
  • Recognition is customized to match what the individual considers a reward, such as additional time for innovation, peer recognition, or access to decisionmakers in the organization.
  • The innovation activity is interesting, satisfying, and challenging, and thereby intrinsically motivating to participants.
Potential Barriers
  • Innovation is viewed as a disincentive; for example, protected time to innovate is not provided and the process is perceived as a burden.
  • Innovation is not integrated in the performance review process.
  • Ideas that don’t quite work out are laughed at, rather than being taken as important opportunities for learning and another cycle of innovation.

About the Author


Mr. Plsek is an internationally recognized consultant on innovation in complex organizations. A former research engineer at Bell Laboratories and director of corporate quality planning at AT&T, Mr. Plsek now operates his own consulting practice and is the developer of the concept of DirectedCreativity™. His health care clients have included the National Health Service (NHS) in England, Kaiser Permanente, the Veterans Health Administration, the SSM Health Care System, and the Mayo Clinic. Mr. Plsek is the Chair of Innovation at the Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle), an innovator-in-residence at MedStar Health (DC–Baltimore), Director of the NHS Academy for Large-Scale Change (UK), a former senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, an active research investigator, a popular conference speaker, and a former member of the Innovations Exchange Editorial Board. He is the author of dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles and seven books, including Creativity, Innovation and Quality; Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders; and Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation: The Virginia Mason Experience.

Disclosure Statement: Mr. Plsek is an independent management consultant who advises health care organizations on innovation strategy.

Footnotes

1Weeks DM. The climate for creativity and innovation [Web site]. Available at: http://www.m1creativity.co.uk/innovationclimate.htm.

2Plsek P, Maher L. Creating the culture for innovation. 10th European Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care; 2005 Apr 13-15; London.



 

Last updated: April 23, 2014.