The HBR post describes several strategies employed by the very famous and very innovative Mayo Clinic. It's worth a full read, but here are two that resonate the most with me and our effort to better define innovation for the association space.
One key aspect to Mayo's innovation infrastructure is its new Center for Innovation (CFI), which exists to help people across the organization take their new ideas to the next level of development. We have found that allowing employees to engage in unofficial activity is one of the most agreed-upon conditions for innovation. Rather than saying that innovation is someone else's job in the organization, it signals to people that they are allowed and expected to spend a proportion of their workweek imagining better solutions.
This sounds a lot like Google's famous 20% time--where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on unofficial projects aligned with their own interests. But I think Mayo goes one step better.
Born in 2006 as the brainchild of Dr. Nick LaRusso, the CFI was first called the SPARC Lab (with the acronym standing for its methodology: see, plan, act, refine, and communicate). Its mission is not to create innovations directly, but to provide employees who are otherwise occupied with day-to-day business with the resources they need to move something forward: time, money, experts, input from leadership and colleagues, and the company's knowledge base. In fact, the CFI itself owes its existence to some very unofficial activity: LaRusso recalls that the idea first arose in 2005 at a happy hour with colleagues.
Giving employees the freedom to explore is definitely a culturual issue for any organization. The leadership has to be serious about it, model the same behavior, and go out of their way to define it as part of what the organization does. But as Mayo's CFI illustrates, it was also very much a process and resource issue for your organization. Letting people explore is one thing. But those explorations have to be communicated and leveraged so that the organization can take best advantage of them. Any way you slice that, that takes time, people and money--above and beyond what the 20% time is costing.
A structural support for innovation at Mayo is the Department of Engineering — the modern iteration of Dr. W. Mayo's "instrument shop." The shop was created in 1915, back when Mayo was forced to build many of its own tools. They quickly perceived how collaboration between engineers, scientists, and physicians created phenomenal new things. The shop helped to pioneer "safe surgery" for the world by combining anesthesia and sterilization. Later, it created the first centrifuge for testing G force tolerance in fighter pilots.
This was hits a little closer to home for me. It seems that more and more of the typical association's products and services are being outsourced these days. Web hosting, association management software, public relations, meeting planning, finanical services--the list goes on and on as many associations struggle with shrinking budgets and higher member expectations.
But in one of those key areas my association has decided to pull the service back in house and re-learn how to do it ourselves. Like Mayo, we're creating our own "Department of Engineering" and learning how to make the tools, not just use the tools manufactured by others. And now we're starting to see some of the advantages the HBR post attributes to Mayo's strategy of combination innovation.
In an area where there are hundreds of vendors offering hundreds of different off-the-shelf products, we're finding success in experimenting with our own technology and adapting it directly to our needs and the needs of our members. The finished product is better aligned with our objectives than any off-the-shelf product I've seen, but more importantly, the learning process required is being embraced by staff as something that helps them do their jobs better. It's opening us up to new ways of doing things no one would've previously anticipated.