Executive echo chambers are stifling innovation in healthcare

Healthcare is a challenging business, and especially challenging right now. If you pick up a book about how to tackle some of these problems, you won’t be able to read too far before you run into the word “innovation”. The sad truth is people who talk about innovation are rarely innovators. Talking about innovation is easy, innovating is hard, and if you are innovating, you probably don’t have time or the inclination to let everyone know how innovative you are. While I agree healthcare needs innovation if it is to thrive, my experience is that executives are often siloed in an “executive echo chamber”, insulated from the real innovators in their ranks. It is not uncommon for smart, well intentioned, and democratic executives (and their teams) to operate in isolation from the reality experienced by everyone else in the organization because of structures or processes of their own design.

One common genesis of an executive echo chamber is having too few people who can say “yes” to an innovative idea. As Alan Weiss says, “When people can’t say ‘yes’ but can say ‘no’, they usually say ‘no’”. If your organizational structure has resulted in a small group of people who can say “yes” to innovation or change, but a majority of the leadership is only allowed to say “no”, you can go sleep tonight 100% sure that employees raising their hands and suggesting great solutions to longstanding problems are getting told “no” by someone in their chain who doesn’t have the ability to say “yes”.

Another genesis of the executive echo chamber is the idea that current challenges in healthcare are the result of external circumstances and thus no one internally is to blame. A great example of this is the labor shortage in healthcare. Have you heard this before, “there is a shortage of nurses, so we need innovative ideas to help the nurses we do have accomplish their job”? Everyone in the C-suite nods their agreement and puts their nose back to the grindstone waiting for the nursing shortage to get better or for innovations to come along to help existing nurses get the job done. What is being missed is the nursing shortage is relative to how awful (or not) it is to be a nurse. Schools across the country are graduating record numbers of nurses, only to have a significant number of them quit nursing as a profession in five years. Why? As one nurse recently told me, “I can go do something else for less b@!!$&!t and the same money.” Figuring out how to decrease the bull is the innovation needed to keep nurses in their job–a solution well within the scope and influence of the executive team. If this sounds familiar, I guarantee there is someone, somewhere in your organization who has been trying to tell anyone and everyone how it can be accomplished.

Solutions for today’s healthcare challenges will not be born of looking at the bottom line and trying to avoid erosion of the margins. Exploring new ways of doing business, technological solutions, and innovative ways of leveraging human capital will require vision and some risk. Just remember that the people who have that vision, can execute it, communicate it, and sell it are probably in your organization and are frustrated, burnt out, and thinking about quitting due to one too many “no’s”.


Copyright Michael Lambert