The Potential for Innovation Is Universal

Second in the series arising from our new partnership with Healthcare: The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation. Read more about the partnership here.

By Robert W. Weisberg, Ph.D., Rebecca M. Speck, Ph.D., MPH, and Lee A. Fleisher, MD

???????????????????We recently published an article in Healthcare about ways academic medical centers can foster innovation among their employees. We believe that innovation is not a domain exclusive to a select set of individuals—the innovators—but, rather, that the potential for innovation can be universal.

Although we all marvel at the innovations of some, believing them to be beyond our capacity, there is evidence that innovations can come from people outside the innovation stream. An example from the corporate world is Post-It notes, which involved the coming together of a failed 3M adhesive with an employee’s need for bookmarks that would not fall out of his hymnal during choir practice. He applied the adhesive to his bookmarks, and it was strong enough to keep the bookmark form falling out as he changed pages, but not too strong as to damage the paper when the bookmark was removed. He began using those minimally sticky bookmarks at work. One day he wrote on the bookmark to communicate with another employee about the relevant passage, and a new product was born.

In our published interview study, we talked with the directors of innovation centers and staff members who had produced innovative projects at three medical centers. We also heard about another under-the-radar innovation: A nurse in the pediatric O.R. in a major academic children’s hospital developed a head-warming device to assist in raising infants’ temperatures after surgery. Importantly, she worked within an environment that encourages innovation and research by their faculty, which served as examples to the entire staff.

If innovations can be brought forth by individuals outside the traditional research area of an organization, then how can academic medical centers increase their levels of innovation if they adopt the premise that innovation development can be universal? Could a medical center use its already-established innovation center or other internal structures to foster innovation from a wider range of employees? We believe it can.

The first step is simply to make employees aware of how much innovation has come from people like they are—people without “innovation” in their job title or description—including, ideally, people from within their institution. The institution should publicize examples of under-the-radar innovations in medicine. If these under-the-radar innovators were recruited and incentivized to present their stories to colleagues, this could actively bring about a change in belief and institutional culture. Those innovators should discuss in some detail how their innovation came about, where the initial problem demanding innovation came from, how the idea to solve that problem developed, barriers faced in bringing forth the innovation, how the project moved from idea to prototype, and how prototype became product. Those histories should make clear that in many domains one doesn’t need sophisticated expertise to develop projects or initiatives.

It’s the work of the institution to ease non-innovators’ concerns about possible negative outcomes of the innovation process, such as that any useful idea they develop might in some way be taken from them. As the composition of medical school faculty changes to include those whose positions do not require research, institutions must establish rewards beyond the traditional promotion process to acknowledge innovation.

During our interviews with people at various levels of the innovation process at several academic medical centers, several expressed the belief that innovators are different because they have innovative environments. It should be easy to demonstrate to non-innovators that many of us have innovative environments, although we might not realize it and even if there are aspects of their work settings that everyone would change if given the opportunity.

Innovation derives from problem solving—but it isn’t special, or restricted to special people. People who interact with patients compile, mentally or literally, lists of patient complaints that they would resolve if given the opportunity. Because many people already identify problems in their work environments, academic medical centers can truly benefit by encouraging them to solve those problems themselves. A critical step is to show them that many such problems have been solved by people who are no different than they are.

041408_Robert-Weisberg_001-200x300Dr. Weisberg is professor and director of graduate studies, Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.



Dr. Speck is Senior Research Associate, Outcomes Research,Speck_photo Evidera, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania.


FleisherPict2012SmallDr. Fleisher is Robert D. Dripps Professor and Chair, Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, and Senior Fellow, Leonard Davis Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. He is also a member of the Administrative Board of the Council of Faculty and Academic Societies of the AAMC.