Innovative to the Core

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Good relationships with physicians. While both Aurora and Geisinger employ many of the physicians who practice at their hospitals, that model is not required for innovation success, Burns says. What is required: mutual trust. "It's important not only to have a good relationship, but a good historical relationship where they have been able to manage the process of change together over time," he says.

Getting there
Not every hospital has the needed structural elements in place to make innovation a way of everyday life, but every hospital leader can take steps in that direction.

Look internally. Aurora's senior leaders conduct "listening sessions" as a routine part of their work. "Every staff member is responsible for delivering care for patients, which means that everybody's opinion counts," Van Cleave says. "It is important for people to understand that innovation is not the responsibility of a department or a small group of people. It's everybody's responsibility to figure out, 'Where are the better ways? And how can we bring them to bear?'"

Look externally. Aurora staff members have trekked to Thailand to learn about the healthcare industry there, to a Toyota plant to understand production, and to a UPS site to think about work flow. Geisinger also looks outside the industry for inspiration: "We very closely follow the venture capital community because they are out there scouring the landscape for new companies that are inventing new technologies, new devices, new drugs, etc." Paulus says.

Train innovators. At Aurora, managers take an innovation class that introduces theories about innovation and techniques to encourage innovation within their work units.

Go public. Innovation at Aurora is referred to as "better ways." The health system's Web site includes a page that lets patients and others read about those better ways, and another page seeks suggestions for new initiatives.

Embrace failure. Encourage prudent risk-taking, knowing that some ventures will not pan out. "If [institutions] are not trying things and failing, then by definition, they are not taking enough risk," Paulus says. "They are not going to get those big wins if they're not out there pushing the envelope."

Think long-term. Innovative ideas may come quickly, but their successful implementation rarely does. Be prepared to wait years to see the results of change initiatives.

Avoid the bandwagon.
Like other industries, healthcare is suspectible to fads that can promise to solve long-standing problems, and many leaders cannot resist jumping in. "Hospitals throw time and money at it, it diverts attention from other things, and if they don't see results in two or three years, they move on to the next one," Burns says. "It's the thinking that these change processes or fads will be the silver bullet. And they're typically not."

Be radical—stay basic. Burns encourages hospital executives to focus on basic business processes rather than trying to be "innovative" in the way that wins awards and headlines. "I don't think the majority of hospitals are necessarily good at doing all the basic business things inside their own house," he says. "I would spend less time trying to be innovative and more time trying to be better at doing the basic things." Indeed, improving revenue cycle management or purchasing systems can be just as innovative as a splashier initiative. "Innovation can be both incremental or radical," he says. "And sometimes the most radical things to do are the things that are incremental."

Lola Butcher is a Springfield, MO-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to HealthLeaders magazine.

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