Leading Innovation in a Risk-Averse Culture

By Michael O’Brien, EdD
August 3, 2018

It’s not easy, but these three steps can help already-excellent organizations evolve.

How can you maintain the advantages of operational excellence without stifling the creation and implementation of innovative ideas? 

Michael obrien

Michael O’Brien

While most health care organizations are focused on operational excellence, many leaders are beginning to see that an equal emphasis on innovation is necessary to remain competitive.

But an organization that excels in operational excellence — which minimizes risk — could not be more different from one that excels in innovation — which rewards taking risks.

As a leader in your organization, how can you maintain the advantages of operational excellence without stifling the creation and implementation of innovative ideas? Use these strategies:

Go first. This means managing your own psychological reaction to innovation. Innovation is uncertain and feels risky. Humans are programmed to avoid uncertainty, and leaders are no exception. After all, the new idea might fail. If an innovation creates a significant amount of change, you might fear the change.

RELATED: Transforming Industry Disruption into Innovation Opportunities

To keep uncertainty and fear from stifling innovation, you must become more self-aware. In other words, learn to recognize and resist any fear that tempts you to shift to a self-protective mode and revert to the old way of doing things.

Shift thinking from "either/or" to "both/and." Armed with self-awareness, you can help your staff manage what seems to be polar opposites: being operationally excellent and being innovative.

Typically, your organization will look at these concepts as winners or losers. As a result, managers from each "side" will dig in, degrading communication. Nothing happens. By reframing the seemingly opposing concepts with a "both/and" statement, you can open creative discussion because stakeholders are no longer locked into their own viewpoints. Ask: "How can we both take advantage of our operational efficiency and become more innovative in the way we address the needs and desires of our patients?" 

Be prepared to manage through disruption. Innovation requires organizations to let go of old work and take on new projects and processes. These transitions are disruptive and create more than the normal amount of breakdowns.

RELATED: What’s the Big Idea? Innovation Changes Everything

Breakdowns happen when people don't do something you thought they should, or when you think something shouldn’t be the way it is. Discussing these situations feels risky, and it is during these breakdowns that your leadership is vital. You can turn breakdowns into breakthroughs by accepting and encouraging divergent points of view instead of resisting opinions that are different from your own. 

Michael O’Brien, EdD, is CEO of the O’Brien Group, a business management consultancy based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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