Challenging your organisation to drive innovation
Einstein was being interviewed, and the journalist reportedly asked him: “Mr Einstein, if a huge flaming meteor was on a collision course with the Earth, and you only had one hour to live, what would you do?”
Einstein wrinkled up his face, scratched his head, then responded, “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and 5 minutes solving it.”
This underscores the importance he — as one of the world’s foremost thinkers and problem solvers — put on getting the question right, and defining the challenge in just the right terms to fully understand it and be pointed towards more insightful and creative solutions.
The inventor of the polio vaccine, Dr Jonas Salk, also saw it the same way. According to Salk: “You don’t find the answers. You reveal the answers by finding the right question.”
Yet time and again I see teams in the workplace rushing for the flipcharts to brainstorm answers, ideas and solutions without first spending time to get the question right. And — as someone who’s often made the same mistake in my 30 years at the intersection of commerce and creativity — I can reliably tell you that a brilliant answer to the wrong question has absolutely zero commercial value. Or worse than that.
So my question to you is: How can you use questioning and challenging to challenge the status quo and drive innovation in your area of health care?
Let’s kick off with the inspiring example of Jake Andraka, who was, by all accounts, a very ordinary student muddling his way through high school (boy, can I relate to that!). But when his uncle died of pancreatic cancer, it was a sad blow for Jake. His parents outlined why pancreatic cancer was such a devastating killer that many didn’t test for until it was way too late because of the US$800 price tag. “Why are we so bad at detecting pancreatic cancer? Why isn’t there a fast, inexpensive test for pancreatic cancer?” Jake asked and set about answering. The result? This 15-year-old created — pretty much on his own, with some help from the labs at Johns Hopkins University — a new test for pancreatic cancer which came in at 3 cents per time (1/26,000th the cost), with 25–50% greater accuracy and 168 times the speed.
Another great challenging example in health care comes from Jane Chen, who was a student at Stanford. “Why aren’t people in developing countries using the incubators they have?” is the insightful question that came to her when given an assignment set by Stanford to redesign the incubator. Following that line of enquiry led her to discover that many remote clinics in rural areas of India, for example, had no electricity, and no funds for maintenance.
“How can we get more incubators to the places that need them?” was the final unlocking question for Chen to develop Embrace portable incubators, which resemble a sleeping bag more than anything else, and use phase-shifting wax-like material to keep the baby’s body warm for 4–6 hours from a simple soaking in boiling water for 5 minutes. No more bulky machinery, no more electricity, no more maintenance, no more high price tags. The Embrace incubator, costing just US$25 compared to $20,000 was a revolutionary solution, and an estimated 200,000 babies have been saved by its use already.
These are two classic examples of challenging that resulted in stunning breakthrough product innovations. But what if you’re more involved in processes and service solutions within the healthcare industry? Questioning and problem reframing can work in exactly the same way.
Richard Branson was recently questioned about the state of the National Health System in Britain and how it could be improved. Branson’s answer was typically insightful, and came in the form of a ‘How?’ question: “How can we put doctors and nurses back in control, instead of having this big wad of middle managers?” A worthy line to pursue, which should result in a more efficacious action bias and less bureaucracy.
We started talking about Salk and we’ll come full circle by closing with a related example. In this case, it’s from Prof Thomas Albright of the Salk Institute. He is questioning the way hospitals are designed. “How do you build a hospital that optimises healing?” he posed. The focus here is clearly on better patient outcomes.
This really powerful question will no doubt shape the experience and solutions in some fresh and exciting ways.
Can you feel how it could become a Mission Question rather than a Mission Statement if you turned up to work and tried to answer that question every day?
I, for one, hope so, having been on the wrong side of some less than optimal experiences recently. One was at the Concord Hospital in Sydney where — night after night for nearly 2 weeks — I was kept awake by the incessant auto-slamming of a dispensary door just outside my ward, depriving me of valuable recovery sleep after a major surgery.
So how might you use questioning and challenging better to create a new (and improved) normal in your healthcare organisation?
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