The Self-Perception of Innovation

One of my recent sessions at a hospital produced a discussion of innovation. When I asked about the state of innovation at this hospital, the participants agreed that it was next to impossible to innovate in the organization. They proceeded to list a variety of reasons why that was, ranging from fear of failure to stale attitudes toward change. The strength of their consensus was surprising to me—they were utterly convinced that innovation was absent in the hospital.

As they talked, two or three participants (out of twenty) began to voice opposition to this point of view. Though they had helped make the list of “why innovation doesn’t work here,” at some indistinct point it was clear that they believed a line had been crossed. They retreated a step or two and said that innovation may be more prevalent than the list made it seem. The result was that the 100% consensus about the absence of innovation fell to perhaps 70-80%. Because I knew that the hospital’s leadership had made a solid effort to promote innovation in recent months, I was grateful for even this minor victory.

Attitudes are a commodity or resource just like any other. Can we imagine a hospital allowing the heat to drop to fifty degrees or the electricity to function one-third of the time? It’s laughable to suggest it. And yet, we may tolerate such under-utilization of attitudes to stifle some of the most important initiatives in the hospital.

The attitude that innovation was impossible is a serious leadership problem for a hospital. Innovation is difficult enough when one factors in the possibilities of things not working as planned, unforeseen flaws, inadequate resources and so forth. But for attitudes to be that innovation doesn’t have a chance amongst us, the consequence is death of an idea in its infancy. You don’t even get to the other stages of implementation when creativity and ingenuity can be drawn upon to develop solutions to emerging problems. Having a negative attitude is all it takes to destroy innovation in the beginning.

I conduct a session on innovation and leadership using the 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston. One of the most compelling points in the case study is the role of communication in innovation. In this case, communication is the battleground for people to grapple with whether or not they want to inoculate people for smallpox. In the broader area of innovation I think an equally important point is that leaders in a hospital should communicate constantly to their staff about how they innovate on a regular basis. In effect, they need to market the presence of innovation to their own people. Until team members are convinced, any attempts to innovate will smash into an immediate barrier.

If you were to gauge or measure the attitude toward innovation in your hospital, what would you learn? The answer is a vital ingredient in the extent of innovation within your team.