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The Internal 'Shark Tanks' Driving Organic Healthcare Innovation

Never underestimate the role of competition in driving innovation. Indeed, it can and should happen organically. But anyone who’s ever been to a middle school science fair knows how bragging rights can produce some very impressive results.

This concept has not been lost on applying Shark Tank-style innovation competitions within the corporate world — and specifically the healthcare industry. Not only has the idea gained traction among many enterprises, but there’s a surge of new businesses offering to organize competitions that better simulate the TV series.

History tells me innovation typically loses steam after a significant initiative saps the energy of key internal agents. So, the fact that there are annual shark tank competitions within provider organizations keeps momentum and grassroots creativity going through what would otherwise be an innovation hiatus.

From an HR point of view, the beauty of these competitions is that many employees who may typically be disenfranchised in the innovation process can submit projects that positively affect their part of the company. This also permits workers in groups not commonly known for innovation to be paired with mentors to accelerate their ideas.

While many companies view these competitions as a way for employee teams to pitch business plans, I find the more exciting competitions focused on grassroots innovations that may have already occurred (whether by design or organically) and are truly scalable.

One of my favorite examples is a competition sponsored by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital Digital Innovation Hub. Back in 2014, a neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) nurse, Stephanie Shine, pitched “Love at First Sight,” a HIPPA-compliant form of Google Glass (computer technology in the form of eyeglasses) that allows patients to remotely participate in a newborn child’s care when the child is in the NICU.

Shine’s personal story inspired her idea. The previous year, Shine was separated from her son after giving birth three months early so that he could receive life-saving medical care in the NICU. Her stress was slightly relieved when a relative brought in a Google Glass so that Shine could see her baby even while she recuperated in another part of the hospital.

In addition to the incubator value of these competitions, many CEOs also see them as the ultimate way of listening to their employees. We’ve all been through those employee appraisal sessions where the boss asks, “What do you think I could do to improve the company?”— but actually seeing their employee so obsessed with change that they’re willing to put their plan of action in place? That’s a different kind of motivating force.

All of these innovation competitions hinge on a culture of trust coupled with an ongoing risk-reward structure. Organizations must take great pains not to make innovation the corporate equivalent of a “Hallmark holiday week” that only happens once a year with great fanfare and then disappears after the awards ceremony.

For more insights on Leadership, Patient Experience, Hospital@Home, Burnout, and Equity, head to the ICD Healthcare Network.

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