One major barrier to innovation is certainty of what can and cannot be done. There are epic tales- like Lord Kelvin, President of the British Royal Society of Science declaring “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible” (1895) just 8 years before the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight. Or, better known- the ‘physiological impossibility’ of someone running a mile in less than 4 minutes until Roger Bannister did just that in 1954. Once he did it, someone else repeated the feat 46 days later and 16 more had done so by 1957. It wasn’t that the physiology changed but rather the assumption, the belief of what could be done.
Consider the medical field. While there have been significant advances in medical devices, hospitals are generally operated the way they’ve been for a very long time. The assumption is that there is no other way to do things. For example, in-house patients get moved to specially equipped rooms if they need an X-ray or an EKG or physical therapy. Sometimes they’re left waiting in a hall where they’re likely to be exposed to patients with other illnesses. Unfortunate but inevitable. Or is it? What if you kept the patient in one place and moved the equipment around. Sound impossible? Don’t tell that to the folks at Providence Regional Medical Center in Washington because that’s exactly what they do. Having the doctors, staff and equipment come to the patient reduces cost while it reduces risk of patient infection and increases patient satisfaction. Why isn’t this done more often? Because it’s always been done the other way and that’s been treated as a given.
I recently tweeted about Laura Esserman, a specialist in treatment of and research on breast cancer. Mind you- a doctor is typically a clinician OR a researcher, not both. What I hadn’t realized is how separate the two can be. Results of data collected from patients undergoing treatment do not get integrated into the research data base. And, it’s hard to use it after the fact because protocols for data collection are so different between research and treatment not to mention between each medical facility. Dr. Esserman convinced the University of California Medical System to create standard protocols for data collection to be shared across medical facilities, for both research and treatment (Athena Network). Think of all the possibilities that opens up for enhanced knowledge.
In both these examples, the innovation was not about products or services but about operational procedures. Both questioned assumptions about how things have to be, opening up consideration of alternative processes that ultimately yield significant benefits to everyone involved. What are you or your organization doing right now because that’s the way it HAS to be? Check out the underlying assumptions to allow for other possibilities.