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Innovation in seven simple steps




December 18, 2022


Innovation is not for the faint hearted. It requires grit and tenacity along with a modicum of chutzpah and humor to see you through the most turbulent of times. My decade long journey into low-cost and low-tech “ICE” (Innovation | Creativity | Entrepreneurship) prompted me to bear it all in a book called Medjack – the extraordinary journey of an ordinary hack.

In Medjack my coauthors and I take the reader through an extraordinary journey of innovation in the unlikeliest of places with the unlikeliest of people and methodologies. In the book we identify the innovation gaps that existed at our parent organization. We then explain the reasons for why we did what we did; how we went about filling those gaps; what we found; what worked and what did not. We then share our methodologies with the readers so that they may adapt them to their personal or organizational needs when required.

Based on the book, this essay provides salient interventions for low-cost ICE. The question that is often asked of me (the author) is: “how is the content of the book relevant to me (the reader)?” What is the book’s bottom line, in other words? Is the envisioned future for any kind of innovation indicative of stormy skies or clear horizons?

If you are reluctant to access the book (for whatever reason), but you are intrigued by low-cost innovation processes for your own organization/department/entity, then this essay is your CliffsNotes, curated below as seven innovation maxims.

Maxim 1: Incorporate innovation at the systems level

If looked through the lens of systems level innovation as a key driving factor for sustainability, I would argue that it is quite possible to design a bright and prosperous innovation future. In fact, I would make a strong case for incorporating organizational innovation at the systems level as a crucial next step for growth and entry into this century as a formidable innovator and (intra)entrepreneur. This is not only relevant but also evidence-based: both the 21st century learning skills and the WHO SDGs delve into the need for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, among other things, at the systems level.

Maxim 2: Proactively build the innovation culture or ecosystem

One basic premise for effective implementation of innovation is the realization that Innovation is on a spectrum with Creativity and Entrepreneurship – hence, the acronym ICE. Ultimately, for ICE to flourish in low-resource healthcare or other settings, its ethos must become embedded into organizational DNA. We believe that only then shall there be long term ‘success’ because the ‘culture of innovation’ or the ‘innovation ecosystem’ takes root at that stage and becomes the sine qua non for effective ICE. The ecosystem thrives when you endorse nimble problem identification/refinement and experimentation with solutions that are fast and frugal. This is particularly relevant to dynamic conditions such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I would caution against jumping onto the innovation bandwagon as merely a sexy knee jerk response to such acute situations, because that will likely be at the cost of the innovation ecosystem not being fully entrenched within your organization.

Maxim 3: Synch top-down and bottoms-up innovation

To enhance the innovation culture or ecosystem, it is important to consider a multi-pronged process inclusive of top-down and bottoms-up approaches in tandem. People at the organizational grassroots who are willing to safely share their ideas and intellect to innovate for the benefit of the organization are as important, if not more, to sustain the ecosystem as are the C-suite executives or leadership positioned right at the top of the pyramid.

Maxim 4: Celebrate innovation in your people

For an employee-centric approach, consideration for creating a balanced innovation portfolio with early, mid and late-stage startups, will likely work well. However, for innovation to prosper far and wide across an organization and to go past its boundaries even, it is important to move away from a mindset that is always focusing on numbers – of revenues, grants, publications, companies, etc. and towards one that connects with passion and purpose of the people from the ground up. Encouraging non-hierarchical, non-judgmental, and collaborative idea generation that reflects people’s inspirations shall go a long way in keeping them vision or mission driven. Nurturing, encouraging and celebrating creativity of all kinds of your ‘human resource’ (apologies to those who cringe at this outdated phrase) across all ranks should be your organizational ethos. Employees for whom innovation becomes their raison d’etre shall continue to authentically champion the organizational innovation agenda. Thus, valuing such individuals bringing out-of-the-box solutions, by positively incentivizing them and retaining them that way, versus letting them be lured away by potential or actual competitors, could be the modus operandi.

Maxim 5: Accept innovation risk

Tied into the innovation mindset should be an aspect of risk tolerance or acceptance of some failure; for instance, ‘failure is ok for ICE to prosper’ or the ‘fail and fail fast and then pivot’ mentality, as was mentioned at the outset. For organizational dynamics and operations consider the use of innovation as a tool for enhanced efficiency and outcomes. This may be particularly useful for those institutions that are massive, bulky and not very open to new ways of approaching problems; and unwilling to engage with students, employees or teams who are able to provide such tools through intrapreneurial means. Internally disruptive innovation in a disciplined manner, while the core business continues, may be another good addition to the innovation culture’s armamentarium to transform such organizations.

Maxim 6: Identify innovation enablers and disablers

It is important to remember that unnecessary hurdles at various levels not only frustrate individuals but also sound the death knell for creativity per se. Hence, it may be meaningful to systematically identify the enablers and disablers of the organization’s innovation ecosystem. Engaging with both in a strategic manner will facilitate progress in ICE for healthcare or otherwise. Recalling that organizational bureaucracy cannot simply be ignored or sidestepped will make life easier for the diehard creator, innovator and (intra)entrepreneur. In this regard, the realization that bureaucracy must be managed rather than fought shall go a long way.

Maxim 7: Establish innovation oversight

As the innovation ecosystem matures, there may be a role for oversight through an innovation committee. Models of centralized versus decentralized innovation may also be considered. Both have their pros and cons. Having committees comes with its own problems, but where technical aspects of innovation are concerned, such as IP rights, patents, ownership, etc. then a more centralized approach with support functions like HR, finance and legal will be a more progressive move for the organization. Since organizational culture may be reminiscent of not always walking the talk, the oversight and centralized functions for innovation, may enable transparency, accountability, gender parity, etc. especially when and where those are sorely lacking.

In conclusion, the future success of a robust innovation ecosystem or culture is dependent on multiple factors, internal and external to the organization. For instance, human resource, expertise, capital resource (for salary, consultancy, programmatic support, seed funding, etc.), space (bricks and mortar infrastructure as well as virtual), technology, and time, to name just a few. What trumps most, if not all the above, is an authentic commitment towards innovation that each person brings to the innovation table, irrespective of title or position. Therefore, truly empathizing with your people’s innovation needs shall make the most insurmountable of innovation hurdles quite manageable.

Author’s footnote

I have the audacity to call the above seven points maxims because of my long-term innovation-based experiential learning. I do believe that Mian’s Maxims can collectively guide you and your organization towards an optimistic innovation outcome. Please note that although I’m making your life easier in today’s modern world of uber distractibility – owing to the pings, boings and alarms of various devices – my recommendation would still be for you to read the whole book to enhance your learning.

Asad Mian MD, PhD is an ER physician-researcher-innovator at the Aga Khan University and a freelance writer. He writes on topics ranging from healthcare and education to humor and popular culture. He authored ‘An Itinerant Observer’ (2014) and ‘MEDJACK: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary hack’ (2021), from which this essay has been adapted. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer