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Leading innovative change in a healthcare setting

10 December 2019

Most healthcare professionals have applied themselves to developing a deep understanding of particular areas of human health. Leadership and innovation may have been by-products of this process – simply tools to get the job done – but it turns out that a focus on leading innovative change in a healthcare setting will get that job done more efficiently and effectively.

Leadership encompasses a set of skills that can be learned and used to influence others to agree on what needs to be done and how to do it. Innovation involves activities that introduce new concepts and products to an organisation. Leading innovative change requires a range of abilities that may not come innately to those in management roles.

When it comes to leadership, most of us are familiar with micromanagement. Micromanagement is a management style that fosters top-down decision making processes, focuses on the smaller details instead of the bigger picture and avoids delegating work throughout the team. Micromanagers can stifle creativity within themselves and others, and can create a very unmotivating work environment. In contrast, the innovative leader can relate what we’re working on now to the big picture. They inspire creative thinkers to enhance that vision of the big picture and make it greater.

In a healthcare setting, the primary goal for both leadership and innovation is to get better health results. By improving their understanding and skills in each area, healthcare professionals will encourage creativity in their teams and contribute to improved outcomes for patients.

Here’s how leading innovative change can be achieved in a healthcare setting.

Two female nurses exchanging ideas in corridor.

Establishing a psychological climate for innovation

It’s not easy to introduce innovation to a healthcare setting where workloads can be high and working conditions are extremely dynamic. Simply suggesting an idea such as reflection practices to encourage innovation may be enough to create stress and anxiety, rather than creativity. But, like many things that are good for us, the benefits of reflection far outweigh the perceived burden.

Successful businesses like 3M (who make Post-It notes) and Google give their staff time every week to engage in reflection for innovation. Of course, most healthcare settings are quite different to the state-of-the-art Googleplex in California! However, a study of primary health teams in the UK found that team reflectivity was not only possible in less than optimum working environments, but it produced innovation. In fact, leaders who encouraged team reflection found that high work demands focused the reflective practices, resulting in more targeted innovation.

It’s also important to encourage a safe environment for sharing ideas. Leaders must model appropriate responses to suggestions that emerge from reflection and promote the same behaviour in other team members. While workloads and dynamic working conditions can’t stifle innovation, fear of expression definitely can.

Clarity of roles

Leadership clarity is achieved through the communication of plans, policies and role expectations. It’s about ensuring that team members know what to do and how to do it, and it’s very effective at guiding and coordinating work activity. In fact, several studies over the past few decades have found a positive relationship between leadership clarity and managerial effectiveness. If leaders understand their organisation’s objectives and can engender participation and commitment in their teams, innovation is more likely to occur.

Participation and commitment flow from leadership clarity, which enables you to delegate and trust. Delegating is about more than just telling team members what to do. To delegate effectively requires you to give people the resources and authority they need to get things done. The counterbalance to these privileges is accountability and consequences. First you must decide what and how to measure, then you must communicate these elements with clarity. 

It might sound counterintuitive, but when delegation is done well and heightened clarity of roles is achieved, there’s almost no need for a leader. At least it can take some of the pressure off the leader, so that they can apply more of their energy to innovation.

In 2017, the New Zealand entry in the America’s Cup yacht race proved this point by winning the series with no leader, tactician or verbal communication. Instead, every member of the boat’s crew had ultimate role clarity. Operating like a well-oiled machine, each individual knew what to do and when, which gave them the competitive advantage to win repeatedly throughout the series of races.

Organisations often lack leadership clarity because teams are working in silos or members of the leadership team aren’t aligned. Innovation is more likely to grow in teams when they have one obvious leader that clearly embodies and expresses organisational strategy and goals. So, leaders must actively lead at all levels of management. Innovation will wither when decisions are delayed or confused by being passed up the leadership chain.

A busy hospital corridor with medical professionals and patients walking through.

Advocate upwards

Altering organisational culture is a slow process that demands a coordinated organisational approach from the top down. In a large organisation where senior leadership are heard but rarely seen, cultural change can be an even greater challenge. However, it’s not impossible.

Health professionals must advocate upwards to drive an organisational culture that supports innovation. Researchers Phillip Weintraub and Martin McKee report that, “Organisational culture in healthcare organisations can be measured and has been linked to performances of hospitals and differences in patient outcomes.” They agree that culture can be changed to emphasise success while encouraging and rewarding risk-taking to enhance the innovation process.

Employees are the largest factor in cultural change, so it’s also imperative to work with Human Resources to recruit staff with a growth mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe their talents can be developed through hard work, strategies and input from others. On the other side of the coin, individuals with a fixed mindset, believe that our talents are innate gifts that we either have or don’t have. Incidentally, there’s no pure mindset – we all have a mixture of both growth and fixed which evolve with experience.

In organisations that foster a growth mindset, employees say they get more organisational support for collaboration and innovation. As a bonus, those employees also feel more empowered in their roles and committed to the organisation. This can be attributed to leadership that instils courage in employees, promotes personal growth and hires from within.

Learn more about how you can become an innovative leader in the changing face of healthcare with SCU Online’s Master of Healthcare Leadership.