Unleash the Power of Innovation by Incorporating 11 Ingredients Into Your Culture
by Grace G. Gorenflo, MPH, RN
Focus on Accreditation and Innovation addresses current issues related to the Public Health Accreditation Board’s national public health department accreditation program, and the Public Health National Center for Innovations. This series highlights the experiences and perspectives of accredited health departments and explores topics related to the Standards and Measures, research and evaluation findings, and the latest innovations in public health practice.
The Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI), a division of the Public Health Accreditation Board, held the Public Health Innovation Summit and Showcase March 26-27, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA – a first-of-its-kind national meeting to help advance innovation in governmental public health practice. The multi-disciplinary group of presenters discussed innovations in a variety of areas, including criminal justice reforms, economic growth, equity and technology. As the presenters spoke, it became clear that innovations in any sector require not only novel ideas, but also an organizational culture that brings the ideas to fruition.
So, what does it take to establish and sustain that culture? We have identified 11 ingredients for innovation, based on lessons shared by the Center for Court Innovation and affirmed by others who participated in the Summit. Some may seem obvious and others counter-intuitive, but all require a leadership commitment to generating innovation.
- Be comfortable with uncertainty. Perhaps seemingly contrary to public health’s emphasis on evidence-based practice, this ingredient is intended to supplement that focus, not replace it. The evidence base is built by studying the results of new strategies that may or may not prove to have the intended results.
- Encourage risk-taking. Government employees are bound by specific rules and regulations, and yet such parameters do not automatically preclude staff from thinking outside the box and taking a risk.
- Value failure. Since the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry’s Eli Lilly has been recognized for throwing “failure parties” whenever an experimental drug was proven ineffective. This practice exemplifies the company’s core belief that failure is an inevitable part of discovery.
- Engage frontline staff. Those at the heart of operations are most attuned to how an innovation will work. For this reason, they are critical both in terms of creating and implementing innovative solutions.
- Co-produce. Co-production is a strongly-held tenet of innovation, and entails creating new programs, policies or processes across programs in a health department and/or with external partners, stakeholders and customers.
- Secure passion and commitment. Regardless of how logical or exciting an innovation sounds, a good idea is not enough. You need staff with the passion and commitment to carry through the whole innovation process.
- Practice radical incrementalism. A single innovation does not need to be big and splashy, nor does it need to be transformative in and of itself. Sometimes it is useful to think of innovation in terms of increments. Bite off one piece at a time, and over time a series of innovations (whether created or adapted/adopted by your agency) can make a radical difference.
- Commit to relentless iteration. When you implement an innovation, you may not get it just right the first time. Tweak and refine the innovation as often as needed to get the results you’re seeking.
- Document, evaluate and disseminate. The greatest strength of an innovation lies in its ability to transform practice. This will happen only to the degree that the innovation is shared with others. Therefore, the innovation process includes developing documentation of the innovation and what it entails, as well as an evaluation of how well it performs, and widely disseminating both.
- Share mixed results. While most people are happy to share success stories, they may be reluctant to share less favorable outcomes. With an innovation, it is important to share all results – especially when they are mixed. This strategy helps ensure that you are not overpromising and also helps set reasonable expectations regarding what the innovation can (and cannot) accomplish.
- Don’t rely solely on data. No matter how rigorous the evaluation or how strong the data collected, remember that data do not speak for themselves. You will always need to tell the story of the innovation’s benefits and success for others to truly understand its potential.
Unleash the power of innovation by incorporating these ingredients into your culture – and be sure to share the results with PHNCI and the practice community!
Grace G. Gorenflo, MPH, RN, is a public health consultant with over 25 years of experience with governmental public health departments. She specializes in public health agency system development; quality improvement, performance management and accreditation; and community health improvement planning.
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