Innovate consistently? Yes, you can.

It's 2020. The at-home, telemedicine robot reminds me it's time for the doctor to check how well the burn on my arm is healing. The specialist is in a clinic located more than 45 miles away, but she thoroughly examines my arm through a wound assessment device built into the robot. After the consultation, my smart band reminds me that the mobile health vehicle will be at my workplace, and I should stop by to get my flu shot. I quickly acknowledge my medication reminder alert, take my meds, and then hop into my driverless smart car. On my way to work, I voice-tweet to share my symptom and treatment information with other patients like me in my social health group.

Science fiction? No. This is what digitally-driven healthcare might look like in 2020. All of these technologies and more are being evaluated by health care organizations, and have a solid chance of becoming reality over the next decade.

But getting there will take a lot of work. In addition to proving that an emerging technology can solve a real problem better than the existing solution, we must ensure that innovative ideas/technologies don't fall into the Operationalization Gap or "O-Gap" -- the abyss between an idea and its fruition.

Here are a few of the lessons that we've learned about effectively managing innovation and successfully introducing new technology to an organization.

  • Be purposeful. We all welcome flashes of inspiration, but sustained innovation doesn't happen by accident. Establish an end-to-end innovation technology management process. Systematically plan for and manage: innovation initiation, ideation, funding, rapid prototyping, transfer of knowledge, piloting, operationalization, and intellectual property management. Create and manage a balanced emerging technology portfolio (including existing technologies that can be used innovatively to solve problems, as well as emerging and transformative technologies that need to be further evaluated). Provide a comprehensive view of the technology landscape -- tracking both internal and external technology innovation activities from both vendors and competitors. This process discipline will help in several ways. It will help ensure a consistent flow of fresh ideas and help quickly identify the ones best suited to an organization. Defining a process also provides tangible gateways that you can attach metrics to, making it possible to measure how well you're doing and identify areas for improvement.
  • Foster a culture of innovation. Ideas come from everywhere: bottom-up, top-down, and sideways, so find ways to let thousands of ideas bloom. Social collaborative and learning networks can help incubate, crowd-source, and foster knowledge sharing. Explore the use of code-a-thons and innovation capital (seed investments) to fund, incentivize, and jumpstart innovative ideas. Nominate and recognize local or portfolio innovation technology champions who disseminate learning and innovate through the use of new and existing technologies.

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  • Test real things, not ideas. When you find a promising innovation or technology, find a way to test its essential elements as quickly as possible. With fast, light prototypes or mock-ups, you can quickly involve contributors and sponsors from a range of disciplines and detect deficiencies in early design, coding and requirement analysis. Also, make sure that you always think, "People first." Human-centered thinking and methods such as field observations in hospitals or patients' homes can help IT better understand the needs of end-users (patients or clinicians) and their environments.
  • Embrace and learn from successful failures. For an innovative technology to spread across an organization, it often requires significant changes in workflow, process, training, culture, and infrastructure. Not all great ideas will succeed. What often looks good under controlled pilots can easily fail in the production environment. David Garvin, a Harvard Business School professor, wrote in "Building a Learning Organization" that "the knowledge gained from failures (is) often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes... In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher." The history of innovation is a long list of failures that eventually led to bigger successes. Thomas Edison said, "Every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward." Steve Jobs was fired by Apple in 1985 only to come back a decade later to reinvent the company.

As health innovation and technology evolve, understanding how and when to invest in or adopt them is critically important. I'm looking forward to learning about your best practices.

Sean Chai is director of innovation technology for Kaiser Permanente's Innovation & Advanced Technology Team. He also provides innovation technology leadership for the Sidney R. Garfield Health Care Innovation Center and Center for Total Health in Washington, D.C..

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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