Jump-start innovation

About a year and a half ago, a group of IT directors at Partners HealthCare System took a look at their 1200-strong organization and made a bold admission: they weren't as creative as they used to be.

Despite pioneering technology efforts in the 80s and 90s, the IT group faced a health care landscape that was more complex and competitive than it was 10 years ago. "One of the things that happens when you grow in size is you lose a bit of your entrepreneurship and innovation," says Mark Woodward, corporate director at Partners. "We wanted to try to get some of that back."

So Woodward researched the concept of innovation -- what it looks like, how it's achieved and how an organization can incorporate it into its culture. "You can't just flip a switch," he says.

His research culminated in the January launch of a 16-week program that takes participants on a carefully planned but ultimately open-ended ride to becoming innovators. The 16 participants are divided into four groups, and each team is handed a challenging business problem to resolve. All are then deliberately exposed to new influences far from the comfort of their cubicles. For instance, they are immersed in the work of users in relevant hospital departments, listen to guest speakers and go on thought-provoking field trips such as a visit to the MIT AgeLab. While in the program, they are completely mobile, operating with just a laptop, a handheld device and a common meeting space shared with other program participants.

The hoped-for result? Individual metamorphosis, the rise of a culture of innovation in IT and maybe even proposed solutions to the assigned business problems.

Serious business

Partners' program illustrates just how seriously some companies are taking innovation. Although innovation has always been important, there's a renewed emphasis on right-brained approaches to succeeding in today's increasingly global, hypercompetitive, unforgiving business world.

"There has been an understandable focus on efficiency, globalization and outsourcing," says Jim Eichner, vice president of advanced technology at Pitney Bowes. "But a lot of those things have played out to a large degree. People are wondering how to differentiate themselves, and they have to innovate to do that."

"After the dotcom bust, companies kind of went internal," says CIO Sally Grant. "But efficiency and process are not going to take us to greatness." Or to put it another way, "You can't downsize to success," says Scott Anthony, a partner at consultancy Innosight.

But the goal is not innovation for its own sake; a key element of current efforts is to stop merely reacting to what customers demand and start anticipating their needs even before they've had a chance to articulate them.

Examples of this business trend include Procter & Gamble's a replacement for the old broom-and-mop routine, and food producer Earthbound Farm's prewashed salad mixes. "It's about changing the status quo and delivering something of such value that users adopt it and thereby change what's 'normal,'" says Tom Andrews, a principal at consultancy Stone Yamashita Partners.

What does all this mean for IT? Well, just as businesses need to differentiate their brands, IT also needs to prove its worth, and it can leverage innovation to accomplish that goal. "IT has to think of themselves like a stand-alone business," says Joyce Wycoff, co-founder of consultancy Innovation Network. "Somehow, they have to come up with a vision that both excites them and creates value for their customers."

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