What stimulates innovation more: caring or crisis?

Perhaps that is another proverbial chicken or egg question.  But it is important for us to think about.

As each day of the BP oil spill goes by without any real progress, I wonder how it affects the American psyche.  Is the crisis motivating action or fueling hopelessness? In a recent article, Philippe Cousteau, makes a strong statement: How U.S. responds to spill reflects the soul of this country.

In any tough situation, how we respond matters. Take the financial crisis.  It shook things up for all of us. And it’s continuing to shake things up for businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.  How do we respond as the uncertainty continues, (Wells Fargo: The Moderate Recovery Continues, but Is It Sustainable?)

To find out how the financial crisis is affecting Health and Human Services Organizations, I attended a conference, United Front: Advancing the Common Good in the New Normal. Here’s what I learned:

  1. More people need more services — caused by the financial crisis.
  2. Significantly less funding is available — from government (state/federal) and foundations.
  3. State and federal budget deficits look bleak for a long time ($55 trillion US federal deficit).
  4. The worst of the recession may be over — but recovery won’t be easy.
  5. Jobs lost won’t be recovered until 2013 — 8.4 million jobs in the US.
  6. Wages fell — significantly — for the first time in 40 years.
  7. Aging boomers will choke the healthcare system with end-of-life expenses.

Gloomy indeed.  Will this stimulate action and innovation? According to economist, Dr. Tom Stinson, that’s precisely what we need to do.  We can’t keep doing the same things the way we’ve always done them — or get by trying to work harder with less.  We need to significantly improve productivity through what Stinson referred to as disruptive innovation.

The good news is that while most people don’t think of themselves as innovators, they do consider themselves to be problem solvers. So think of disruptive innovation as problem solving on steroids — or problem solving with passion.

Apparently disruptive innovation is just what’s needed to reform healthcare according to a Business Week article by disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen.  He recommends… “moving the simplest procedures now performed in expensive hospitals to outpatient clinics, retail clinics, and patients’ homes. Costs will drop as more of the tasks performed only by doctors shift to nurses and physicians’ assistants. Hoping that our hospitals and doctors will become cheap won’t make health care more affordable and accessible, but a move toward lower-cost venues and lower-cost caregivers will.”  Conference speaker, Mary Brainerd, President and CEO of Health Partners, is doing that, locating retail clinics in neighborhoods and sharing expensive technology.  Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor, spoke last week at the World Innovation Foundation conference, where he recommended focusing on increasing healthy outcomes rather than just cost savings.  Others might argue that disruptive innovation in healthcare can only be achieved through improved nutrition, exercise, and alternative healthcare.

Whether you believe in any of these healthcare solutions doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we get more people involved solving problems they truly care about. We can’t leave innovation to just a few people at the top, in a special job, or task group.

How do we foster thoughtful innovation? There are no easy answers.  Taking risks is ever easy — with or without a crisis.  How can you get motivated if you’re worried about making a mistake, being criticized, or losing our job?  It’s hard enough when funding is tight and where new initiatives are rare.  It’s even harder if an innovative idea failed; institutional memory is long where failure is involved.  If you’ve never participated in anything you consider innovative, how do you know where to start? If we care about our work, we need to find ways to motivate ourselves.  We take risks everyday; we just don’t always see it that way.  As management guru Peter F. Druker points out: “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.  People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

I suggest that to increase your comfort level and likelihood for success, talk to people who are doing it right now.   Seek out someone who’s willing to support you as you test the waters on your idea.  Find a mentor.  Find ways to gain insights and the confidence you need to be more innovative.

Look for innovative ideas that inspire you. While they might not have anything to do with what you’re doing right now, perhaps you’ll start to think differently.  I’m inspired by the enormity of innovative projects streaming my way everyday.  What appeals to me are practical examples, what people are accomplishing today even while the financial crisis continues. A lot is happening as the lines between business, nonprofits and government agencies are evolving.  The concepts of social enterprise, triple bottom line, and corporate social responsibility are forging new collaborations, new possibilities, and higher expectations.  Here’s a great example: A seemingly unlikely collaboration, Coke and Greenpeace partnered to reduce the beverage company’s biggest carbon footprint caused by 10 million vending machines.

Links to Innovators

Whatever you’re passionate about, I hope you won’t wait for a crisis to motivate you. Innovate because you care — be a proactive problem solver with a passion. And seek out the support you need to help you be more successful when you do.

Kick-start Innovation: Are you looking for a fun, easy way to get people thinking and exploring new ideas?  The Creative Whack Pack is something I’ve been using to help start the conversation for decades.


2 Responses

  1. Blog by Andrew Winston/HBR
    How to Drive Change the IDEO Way: 3 key principles to drive change…including Speak joy, not fear. I couldn’t agree more.


  2. […] What Stimulates Innovation More: Caring or Crisis? (Courtesy Beth Parkhill, Mentor Planet) Making More and Better Key to Economic Recovery (Courtesy Cary Lenore Walski, Minnesota Council on Foundations)  […]

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