Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Clinic of Innovation

Here's another fascinating post about innovation from the HBR blog. It describes the first-of-its-kind "Clinic of Innovation" at Oslo University Hospital--an internal unit within the hospital that is set-up to work like an outpatient health clinic. But instead of treating people, this clinic treats ideas. Innovative ideas from a variety of hospital stakeholders walk in, are diagnosed, and are treated or referred; some are sent home with a prescription for further development, and an appointment for a follow-up visit. Those that pass muster are provided technical support and, if necessary, business model development and commercialization.

It's an interesting approach and the post contains a lot of thoughtful suggestions for designing a successful innovation process. But I want to focus in on the underlying concept--that for an innovation process to succeed, it must align with the organization's culture and way of thinking. In the case of Oslo Univeristy Hospital, shaping the identity of the innovation clinic and modeling its processes along the lines of an outpatient health clinic was a deliberate decision. The founders reasoned that healthcare professionals would find it easier to relate to a clinic than a different model borrowed from the business world.

That's an important lesson for any association executive interested in increasing the ability of their organization to generate and execute innovative ideas. The principles of innovation in the WSAE white paper on Innovation for Associations talk about the need to make sure the top leadership of your association embraces a culture of innovation. In our task force's discussions on the subject, I think we drew an implicit conclusion from that principle. If your top leadership does NOT embrace innovation, then the long and sometimes painful process of culture change is the prescription you need to take in order to bring innovation to your association. But perhaps Oslo University Hospital shows us that there are other ways to skin that cat. Perhaps there are situations where culture change is not a necessity. Rather, a strategy to define innovation in terms understood and mechanisms relied upon by the current leadership culture could also make a difference.

In my career, I've worked for a number of medical specialty societies--associations steeped in an academic culture of research, teaching and patient care, not unlike the hospital described in the HBR post. A "clinic of innovation" might work well in that environment, even if the association leadership is generally resistant to other kinds of change and new ideas. A trade association of business owners may be equally resistant to changing how their association does things, even while clearly seeing the need for their companies to adapt to a changing marketplace and to find better, faster and cheaper ways to meet the needs of their customers. Clear, concise "business cases" for each innovative idea seeking approval may evoke a more thoughtful review by these professionals.

Aligning efforts to innovate in the association with the fundmental culture of the specialty or industry it serves may be one of the most effective ways sidestep the necessity of culture change and get a stagnant association on a more innovative footing.


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