When It Comes to Innovation, Focus on the Process

When It Comes to Innovation, Focus on the Process

The possibilities for health care innovation are seemingly limitless. However, even the most robust health care organizations can’t pursue every great idea. That’s why a focused approach to innovation is essential and ultimately helps create digital products and services that make a difference to peoples’ lives and well-being.

How to begin the innovation process? Admittedly, the most important step doesn’t sound too innovative – focus on the true problem you are trying to solve. If that seems like a no-brainer, it’s actually a radical mind-flip for health care. Too many of our organizations focus on financials and what’s best for the enterprise, when it’s really all about the end-user. We also need to stop referring to those we serve as patients and use the term “consumer” instead. Patients, as the word implies, suffer and wait for us to make decisions for them – not exactly the way most of us want to be regarded. Consumers are vital, decision-making members of the community who actively seek the best partner for health care.

Next, recognize that consumers have problems to solve. This, too, may not sound like news since we all know the U.S. health system has many problems. However, not all problems concern our customers, so being selective is critical. Find the sweet spot of seeking out solutions to problems that align with big issues addressed in your strategic plan. For example, Providence St. Joseph Health is pursuing answers to mental health concerns in a big way. That means we give points to pursuing solutions that help keep people emotionally well.

It helps to have a system and process when defining the scope your work. We’ve established that achieving consumer value is a must, but there are three other factors to consider: caregiver value, financial value and enhancement of quality of care. 


The idea is to build trust, bring all stakeholders along as partners, and ensure credibility

Before we tackle a problem, we need to know our solution will help improve the work of those who are providing the care. Financial value is a must for any responsible organization. And, the work should ultimately enhance quality of care, making health care better. These four factors are not always evenly weighted, but cannot be overwhelmingly skewed. For example, we want to pursue a problem that will make us more financially responsible, but if the solution has limited consumer value it will not succeed.

Once we’ve defined the problem and scored the value of our pursuit we size and prioritize it. If it is a big concern that directly impacts a major strategic goal, it shoots to the head of the queue. Less pressing but still important smaller projects may still get attention although with less urgent deadlines. Next, the fun begins with what we call “the technology cascade.” This is a sleuthing activity, with the goal of determining how to achieve the best possible answer to a prioritized problem statement. First, we look within our own organization and determine if we already own the solution. That’s the best possible situation because it proves we’re truly aware of customer concerns.

If there’s nothing owned internally, we scan the market. We look for best-of-breed companies, which is where our venture capital arm, Providence Ventures, comes into play, helping us find the best of the best. But we don’t tap into every opportunity we identify. We may look at hundreds of companies a year and only make a handful of investments. And if we don’t find just the right answer through our market scan, we may make the decision to build it.

There are no short cuts getting to the “build” decision, even though it’s easy to get excited about the possibility of creating and controlling the development of something new. No one gets points for originality – we get points for solving a problem. The best digital solutions not only solve a problem for our own customers, but also for those in other markets. For example, we incubated our Circle app to provide trusted content and engagement for expecting mothers, and, when it was evident our work would help others beyond our market, other health systems became interested in it and licensed Circle as well.

More keys to success? Reach out to stakeholders on a regular basis. This means more than simple check-ins with board members and executive teams. It means working through your digital and innovation strategies in a way that promotes collaboration and frank dialogue.

In fact, you must build regular communication into your process. And be aware that technology moves so quickly that you may need to frequently circle back in this work, especially when you modify your course. The idea is to build trust, bring all stakeholders along as partners, and ensure credibility. Remember, it’s not the stakeholders’ job to understand what you do, but it’s your responsibility to remain credible and establish trust in the pursuit of innovation.

Yes, the possibilities for health care innovation are enormous. Those of us fortunate to be the innovators must maintain the focus and discipline to get it right. Our organizations and our customers depend on it.