|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|
Innovative organizations set up systems to capture and nurture good ideas, both to solve problems and to encourage innovative thinking—a cycle in which innovation stimulates even more innovation. The following advice is drawn from a review of numerous references and case studies on systems to capture and nurture ideas.1-7
Understand that the goals of capturing and nurturing ideas are to address specific problems and to support an organizational culture of innovation.
Leaders shouldn't be afraid to direct the focus on specific problems while also allowing ideas on any topic. It is a myth that setting specific targets for innovation stifles creativity.8,9 When formal leaders encourage ideas on a specific, focused topic, they signal the importance of the topic and their readiness to listen. This, in turn, encourages people with ideas to speak up.
It is also useful to call for ideas to meet targets that might sound impossible on first hearing—so-called “stretch goals”—as these often encourage more radical thinking. Here’s an example of a stretch goal: “This month, we are specifically looking for ideas that would enable primary care teams to serve patient panels of 5,000 patients per physician, rather than the normal panel size of 1,000 to 2,000 patients per physician.”
Scan broadly for ideas from within and outside your organization and industry.
Individuals directly involved in a specific issue may have many good ideas, but there is no need to limit idea generation to a narrow group. Consider involving people from other departments who might provide a fresh perspective. Search the literature and idea exchanges (including the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Health Care Innovations Exchange) for insight into how others have approached similar issues in health care. Look across various health care settings. For example, a hospital team might learn something from what is considered common practice in a primary care clinic or dental practice, and vice versa.
Further, an innovative approach might emerge by reframing the issue and seeing what concepts and approaches other industries use in analogous situations.
Create connections among people.
The best knowledge management systems make it easy for idea generators and implementers to interact with one another. This interaction might involve an informal chat with colleagues within the organization, e-mail or phone conversations with people outside the organization, or travel to conferences or site visits.5-7 These interactions lead to social system recognition, which can be a powerful reward for idea generators and can stimulate even more good ideas.
Make it easy to submit an idea.
Complicated forms (paper or computer-based) that require more than six or seven items, or more than about 15 minutes for the submitter to complete, will reduce the number of ideas submitted. Leaders should focus on capturing a few compelling details, along with contact information, so that those who want more information can request it.
Promptly acknowledge every idea submitted.
Successful idea capture and nurturing systems include policies and processes that require leaders to acknowledge every idea submitted and to provide initial feedback to the submitter within a reasonable timeframe (for example, a week). Most people will understand if their idea cannot be acted upon, provided that the reasons are clear and their contribution is recognized.
Capture some supporting evidence for each idea.
Although it should be easy to get ideas into the system, it is also important to provide some screening criteria so people will not think that the system is simply “full of crazy ideas.” The evidence for an idea does not need to be a full-blown research project. A logical explanation of why something should work, a simple quality improvement cycle, a believable anecdotal report of success, or a pilot study with a few measurements are indications that the idea has been thought out. For example, the reason that Toyota (the automobile manufacturer) is able to implement 96 percent of the ideas submitted by employees is that the company requires some evidence of effectiveness before an idea is even accepted into the system (and yet they manage an astounding 2 million ideas submitted annually, about 40 per employee).1
Require managers and clinical leaders to demonstrate that they are using the system.
Industrial organizations that invest in idea capture and nurturing systems must believe in their investment enough to demand that these systems be used productively.10 Health care organizations might consider requiring that managers and clinical leaders demonstrate in annual performance appraisals that they have implemented at least some of the ideas obtained from the idea system. Organizations might also consider requiring that proposals for resources demonstrate a search for and critical analysis of ideas that have worked elsewhere.
Publicize ideas that have been successfully implemented.
One of the most important things that leaders can do to nurture and stimulate innovation is to show that ideas that have been implemented are leading to positive changes in the organization. Along with systems to capture ideas, organizations should create systems to capture the stories of how ideas have evolved into meaningful changes. Various communication mechanisms (such as internal newspapers and presentations) can be useful for sharing the message that innovation is desirable, ongoing, and beneficial.
Celebration is important to the growth and maintenance of organizational culture.11 Possibilities include a periodic award program, poster session, or symposium to highlight the use of innovative ideas within the organization. Leaders can create a positive social "buzz” by taking the time to conduct “walk-arounds,” in which they go into the workplace to express appreciation in a personal way to individuals and groups who generate and implement ideas. Organizations should consider special recognition for teams that adapt and spread ideas from outside the organization (e.g., a “Stealing Shamelessly” award).12
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, he 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.
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