Innovation Strategy in a COVID-19 World

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If there is a silver lining to a crisis—and we believe there is—it is that we are afforded an opportunity to deeply reflect on what is important. This is equally true for individuals and organizations.

As Healthbox continues to listen to and support the healthcare innovation market, our reflection has been telling, though not surprising. In this post, we share our observations on the past three volatile months, how and where innovation showed up, and what this means for healthcare innovation in the future.

Innovation Achievements in the COVID-19 Crisis

Innovation departments—sometimes narrowly thought of as the organizational representative of exploratory, futuristic, arguably nice-to-have investments—have proven their skill set is immensely more nimble and immeasurably more valuable during the pandemic. Here is just a short list of what these departments have achieved in less than 90 days by leveraging their core skills as innovators:

What made the innovators so well suited to succeed in such a challenging environment?

In volatile, dynamic, changing environments, the value of the generalist is rising. COVID-19 puts a spotlight on this, but the imperative for change in healthcare will require just as much of this thinking as you return to your organizational strategy.

Innovation departments, at their core, are the Swiss Army Knife for a health system. Born out of insatiable curiosity, an innovation competency begins with a skill for problem analysis followed by ideation, regardless of the subject matter. It was not hard to find situations to apply this skill set when the pandemic hit, and it will continue to be crucial as health systems navigate uncharted territory in the new normal.

An innovation thoroughbred is an “ideas person” with a strong left brain or an analytical whiz with a high EQ. Either way you look at it, they have a unique ability to account for the operations, the value proposition, the ROI and the human factor of a problem all at once. Most of all, they thrive on diving into the uncertain with a solutions-first mindset. They’re adept at asking questions to explore problems and bringing the right people together to act. This is what makes them so high-value even in such small numbers, and why we often see teams of no more than 5–10 people cause a dramatically disproportionate effect on an organization’s pace of change.

“As our organization’s response to COVID-19 began, our strategic innovations team was pulled into a number of projects almost immediately. Where I feel we added the most value and expedited processes was by offering a different way of approaching challenges or projects that we commonly use. We start with the knowns and assumptions that we have to educate ourselves on the topic, pull together the right people from various viewpoints, and move fast. It can feel like we’re operating with incomplete information, but it’s more of a process of making small steps and immediately evaluating and pivoting or continuing. We look to non-traditional or external partners many times before using internal resources, we move fast and make decisions efficiently, and we prototype and get feedback quickly.”

 – Michael Schmidt, Managing Director, Orlando Health Strategic Innovations

Starting their momentum build in 2010, innovation departments were often found pushing the envelope of what was possible inside an organization for revenue generation, the betterment of patient care, increased team member loyalty and recruitment of physicians with strong referral networks. It was a top-line focus for providers building their war chests of strong brands and balance sheets.

One positive thing COVID-19 has done is dispel the naysayers’ myth that innovation is for the development of widgets and nice-to-haves. On the contrary, organizations with strong innovation skill sets were better positioned to handle this crisis. They had generalists who could be deployed in many ways, shifting from technology horizon scanning to orchestrating PPE partnerships in a matter of days, proving that catalyzing foundational economic change does not have to die mired in red tape or organizational inefficiency. Agility, tenacity and even intuition propelled innovation departments to do what individual, siloed departments would have been challenged to do.

Will this skillset be as needed in calmer times?

We aren’t the first to posit that the need for innovation will be more significant now than ever. With health systems losing revenue in the billions due to the pandemic, it is a must to rethink strategy and operations merely to get back on solid ground. This isn’t a time for only the “safe” operational improvements aiming to achieve a 1–3% impact on the bottom line.

Right now, health systems need continued supply chain innovation; they need to prepare for a second and third wave of COVID-19 while simultaneously being first in their markets to build brand equity with a profoundly fearful and uncertain customer base. When successful there, they need broader virtual expansion into the home to ease bottlenecks that will emerge as necessary but elective care resumes in full. And they need to do all of this with mounting pressures on labor satisfaction and supply.

Health systems need to innovate because their market has never looked like this before; new entrants have redefined the competitive landscape. While keynote addresses have been warning of the Amazons, Apples and Walmarts for the past few years, panel discussions for traditional functions have more often opted to talk about how big the obstacles will be for these organizations to break into mainstream healthcare—a tongue-in-cheek pat on their own back and a head-in-the-sand comment. This is simply the wrong approach, but the innovators are the ones who will embrace the change and see opportunity in new partnerships and new revenue opportunities, while the operators seek the path of least change.

This is why innovators need the microphone alongside executive leadership. The savvy of the innovation department is such that it can quickly embrace a changing organizational imperative and begin operating immediately. For those with a trusted Swiss Army Knife, the response is, “Got it. Let’s work on a new problem.”

Advice for Innovation Leaders

Fortunately, the durability and relevance of a well-developed innovation skill set means that health system leaders don’t have to rewrite the rule book when the going gets tough. They simply need to continue their investment in what’s steadfastly proven to move organizations successfully through challenges:

  • Disentangle what has started, stopped or continued in the last three months, and check in on your innovation strategy—as always, advancing the enterprise strategy must be your North Star.
  • Make your innovation efforts problem-centered.
  • Understand your innovation competencies and where they are lacking; don’t go it alone.
  • Stay the course knowing the ROI on some bets will be further than 18 months out.

Health systems have never had a modern-day opportunity like this—a reset button—to question and redesign the way things are done. Don’t let it slip away.

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