Innovation: From Crisis to Critical

Yesterday for HISA’s series on Innovating Health, along with Vishaal Kishore, I facilitated a discussion of healthcare leaders on how to create a culture of systemic innovation. In the conversation we discussed the insight that participants in the healthcare system are great at innovation in a crisis. When the urgency and need are high, resources are made available, change leadership arises, collaboration comes forth and novel solutions are pushed through to solve challenges. We need to reflect on why the innovation and change that arises in a crisis is not more critical to our organisations.

Learning from Crisis Innovation

Many organisations and systems are capable of extraordinary things in a crisis. Inspired by crisis level performance, the response of leaders can be to seek to leverage and replicate this capability beyond the crisis. Many leaders try to recreate innovation and change through a manufactured crisis situation, either through a ‘burning platform‘ or simply a high pressure project environment.  These strategies result more often in crash than crash through. It is rare that sustainable change flows from a skunkworks or a pressure cooker because people and systems push back on embedding and adoption of change when the crisis subsides and practices return to normal. These interventions are transactional and not generative. In addition, the costs of a rolling crisis to employees and organisation involved can be extreme.

Other leaders take the view that innovation is only possible in special circumstances and therefore look to create space for those unique circumstances of shared purpose, collaboration, leadership and resourcing. With this mindset comes a focus on a special extra space for innovation. This space ranges from extra time, to special teams, to extra funding through to dedicated innovation labs. There is an important role for dedicated space for innovation. Critically these spaces can act as ‘wiggle room‘ to enable change agents to learn and demonstrate their potential and to enable organisations to test approaches and see proof the value of innovation. Extra space for innovation can be a key part of a transition to wider changes in the system to foster and support innovation across the organisation.

The inadvertent consequence of both of these approaches is a view that innovation is over and above work.  Innovation happens in a crisis, a project or a lab. It doesn’t happen at my workplace. Innovation is what others do when asked. Sustainable systemic innovation requires organisations to focus on how innovation can become critical to work and not a crisis. The best innovations are driven by the insights, interactions and lessons of the flow of everyday work.

Critical Innovation Leadership is Leadership

When we look at some of the human elements that align in a crisis situation to enable people to push through to realise new ideas, we can see that many of these circumstances are not that special at all. In fact they should be critical to the success of any work. Leaders should foster these in all work. Clarity of purpose supports all work. Focus on value for diverse stakeholders improves effectiveness of work everywhere. Great leadership and collaboration to work across silos and around barriers is essential to all work. Resourcing and risk appetite should be driven by value creation and the needs of work. A learning mindset is critical for all work in an era of continuous change and rising expectations.

We can and should address challenges in crises when they arise. We can all benefit for the extra reflective space, practices and resources for special areas devoted to innovation. However, the challenge for all work and all leaders is how to move innovation and change from crisis to a critical everyday part of every role. We need to focus on the capabilities, behaviours and systems that enable and act as barriers to innovation in everyday work. Aligning and improving these aspects of the system will benefit all work.  All work benefits when leaders set about creating the ideal circumstances for innovation and change.

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