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"Treating knowledge as merely something that offers competitive advantage serves no one well."
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Are You Innovating the Old-Fashioned Way?

By Derek Feeley | Thursday, October 18, 2018
Line of Sight

In this month’s leadership column, IHI President and CEO Derek Feeley offers a preview of his IHI National Forum keynote presentation.

A few years ago, IHI took a group to NASA as part of our executive leadership course. We wanted NASA — the organization that put a man on the moon — to teach us about innovation.

We were surprised to learn that they were crowdsourcing their innovation efforts. They still had a small in-house team, but NASA was now, largely speaking, looking outside their organization for new ideas.

It may sound odd, but this approach has been fruitful. NASA now engages thousands of people all over the world in the ideation process. It’s led to breakthroughs. For example, we heard about a retired meteorologist who solved a problem that NASA had been struggling with for many years. He had approached the issue from a fresh perspective because he brought to bear a set of skills and knowledge that differed from NASA’s internal team.

If an organization known for innovation has the humility to say, “Maybe some of the answers to our problems lie outside our walls,” and the willingness to share their lessons learned with others, can’t we in health care do the same?

New Ideas from Everywhere

When we don’t bother to look outside our own organization for good ideas, we may miss problem-solving opportunities. The IHI Innovation System white paper describes the notion that “innovations are found and developed within an organization” as part of the old mental model of innovation. In contrast, organizations that embrace the new mental model of innovation are “open to new ideas from anywhere.”

“Anywhere” can include health care systems or countries other than our own. It certainly includes organizations outside health care. Indeed, the aviation, automotive, and nuclear power industries have had a huge influence on health care quality improvement. With this history in mind, IHI offers National Forum Excursions to organizations that might at first seem unlikely sources of inspiration. You can visit a zoo, a theme park, a golf academy, a hotel, or a food bank to learn about leadership, customer service, safety, reliability, and disaster preparedness. You can find new ways to address some of the biggest challenges in health care by adapting the practices of these organizations.

The Benefits of Sharing Knowledge

Sometimes it can be easier to get new ideas from outside health care. Difficult business environments can make health care leaders unwilling to share good ideas, especially with those they see as “competitors.”

The benefits of receiving knowledge are more obvious than the benefits of being a knowledge donor, so examples of this are worth noting. During IHI’s 100,000 Lives Campaign, around 200 hospitals acted as mentors for other hospitals by volunteering to share their improvement lessons. Now, as part of the 100 Million Healthier Lives Campaign, there are communities mentoring other communities. As part of both initiatives, participants see great satisfaction in being mentors. Instead of jealously guarding their hard-won knowledge, they share generously, noting that they always learn when they teach.

Another example is the European Union’s healthy aging campaign. It encourages older people to act as guides to others who are aging. They’ve found that service recipients scored high on quality of life measures, but volunteers also scored well because they were active, engaged, and mobilized around helping others.

As health care struggles with overwork, burnout, and stress, it’s important to note that there’s real power in the reciprocity and mutuality of knowledge sharing because knowledge is social. As fundamentally social beings, we need to share knowledge to thrive. It’s at the heart of practically everything IHI does, including our National Forum, our website, and the IHI Open School. All of these “spaces” — some real and some virtual — allow like-minded people to come together in the spirit of what IHI calls “all teach, all learn.”

Many of us weren’t trained to think or work this way. But in a world that is increasingly global, where ideas can be generated from anywhere, where knowledge is found in quite unexpected places, treating knowledge as merely something that offers competitive advantage serves no one well. It’s certainly not serving the people who begin with disadvantages in terms of race, gender, or income, for example, but it’s also hurting those with knowledge they don’t share. Hoarding knowledge contributes to the belief that we have to tackle all our problems ourselves. It adds to the loneliness and isolation that contribute to burnout.

Health care leaders need to see knowledge as something that enhances the common good. We need to move away from the notion that knowledge is somehow in limited supply. We are much more likely to generate good ideas by sharing than by hoarding. Every boat would rise if we could do a better job of sharing knowledge to collaborate rather than hiding it away to compete.

Editor’s note: Look for more from IHI President and CEO Derek Feeley (@DerekFeeleyIHI) on leadership, innovation, and improvement in health care in the “Line of Sight” series on the IHI blog.

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