Turning the Innovation Tables

by Jeffrey Phillips

e05d90afded492eedfb1c0aacdf1e9ebebfcf4edRecently, I attended an interesting program co-sponsored by the University of North Carolina’s health care innovation program and AARP.  The program was set up to bring together people who had an interest in solving problems relating to prescription drug use. Far too many people are prescribed medications but don’t fill the prescription or don’t use the medications as prescribed.

The program brought together people from different universities, different industries, and other organizations to try to generate ideas around solving the issue of non-compliance.  More interestingly, the organizers hoped that there would be enough interest and passion in the group that teams would form to consider methods or technologies that could address the problem.

It’s clear that these kinds of “sprints” are growing in importance, and interesting when you consider that some of the teams that form are formed on the fly, built of people from different organizations.  Most of the people in attendance were there because they have an interest in helping improve medical prescriptions and use, which could lead to better health outcomes.  In other words, the attendees had a passion for solving the problem and to a great extent were mentally and emotionally engaged and intrinsically motivated.  As we know, these conditions are important for innovation in any setting.

But what really struck me about the event was the set up by knowledgeable experts. The event was kicked off by folks from UNC who described the breadth and depth of the problem.  Non-compliance and non-adherence to drug prescriptions is a problem with a price tag estimated at over $300 billion per year.  A medical doctor described some of the challenges that patients face and the difficulties of understanding what people are currently taking, drug interactions as new medications are prescribed, and the lack of continuity as patients go home and either follow the prescribed medical path or fail to continue.

In other words, the people who have the problem are educating an innovation team of passionate volunteers.

Imagine a world…

Watching this unfold got me thinking.  We’re doing corporate innovation all wrong, and the innovation sprint that UNC and AARP were conducting have got it right.  They have the ingredients correct and the order of activities correct.  Let’s imagine for a second what this would look like in a corporate setting.

In a corporate setting today, executives intent on running the business day today are occasionally interrupted and asked to weigh in on ideas that were generated by people throughout the business.  Since strategy isn’t all that well communicated, the ideas that bubble up are rarely aligned to important needs or goals, and are often simply distractions to day to day efficient operations.  There’s little engagement or buy-in on any side, and innovators have to plead for executives’ time.

Now, imagine we can implement in a corporation what UNC and AARP implemented in a sprint.  In this powerful but so far imaginary case, executives present their most important needs and goals, the ones they simply cannot solve with existing tools, to a motivated group of innovators collected from across the organization.  The executive presents the problem, provides background and asks the innovators for help. The innovators, who are capable and passionate people drawn from across the organization, review the problems and needs from several executives and choose which one to work on, moving quickly into a defined innovation process.

  • Rather than view innovators as distractions, executives should view innovators as a powerful resource that should be used effectively.
  • Rather than having to “bubble up” ideas to executives, innovators should have important problems presented to them, that they can choose to solve if it meets their passion and interest
  • Rather than conduct innovation in out of the way places or under cover, we can conduct it out in the open, acknowledging that existing tools and methods don’t address all the growth needs or concerns.
  • Rather than treat innovation as a sideline, we can incorporate innovation as simply another valuable tool to help achieve strategic stretch goals.

What stands in the way

Of course, this story I’m telling has a lot of potential barriers.  Few executives will agree to take the time or to even admit, that there are business needs or challenges that they need help solving.  Few companies are going to allow employees to simply drop their day to day work and contribute to innovation projects based on their passion and interest.  But what if we turned this unwieldy innovation process on its head? What if executives could communicate their strategies and needs, and could adequately communicate and frame the innovation activities they need?  What if employees could spend time on projects based on their interest and passion?  What if executives had to “pitch” their needs to innovators who could choose where to spend their time, rather than attempt to present ideas to distracted and often disinterested executives?

Yes, this reverses a lot of the power structure that exists, gives power and decision making to self-organized innovation teams rather than embed decision making with one or more executives.  It would force executives to think more clearly about their businesses and be able to distinguish what they can deliver with existing methods and tools, and what needs and gaps they have that cannot be filled by existing tools. It would require executives to demonstrate how solving a challenge or problem is good for the company, good for the customer and good for the innovator.

Why the sprint works and what businesses can learn

The sprint works because everyone who attended the event is there on their own time.  The audience showed up, ready to help because they care about health care, or they believe they can create new solutions to solve an important problem.  They showed up because they know that the people who convened the sprint, UNC, and AARP, can frame the challenges effectively and communicate solutions to organizations that can scale up good ideas.  The people who attended were intrinsically motivated (yes, there is some small payment for the best solution or idea, but nothing compared to the investment).  They have passion for the industry and the need, they are engaged, and they are properly prepared by understanding the challenges in the industry.

If AARP and UNC can get 100 people to show up for pizza and soda for several hours of their own time, why can’t businesses do a better job sponsoring innovation and tapping into the wealth of ideas and energy of their own people?

image credit: aarp.org

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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