Innovation is more than a singular event that happens and then <POOF!> the organization has magically transformed. The reality is that innovation requires organizational change from many deliberate efforts over time. In my experience, big events like iLabs (retreat-style innovation sessions spanning multiple days) are good and one-on-one interaction can be better, especially when the innovation mentor is an introvert or the organization is disaggregated. Guerrilla Innovation employs many separate, low-key innovation sessions to embed the innovation mindset and build momentum for organizational transformation.
This article has been written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification credential at iVia: a program founded by the University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and Beacon Health System http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
Every innovation leader has been there. We have magnificent visions of post-it and easel pad masterpieces adorning the walls of the purpose-made meeting space. In the scribbles and sketches, we see the genesis of an entirely new era for our organization. We didn't just solve le problème du jour. Instead we enlisted and trained an army of innovators, a dozen or more freshly minted experts flipping orthodoxies and smashing lenses on the way to complete innovation domination. And then we wake up.
Back in the real world, we have to contend with limited resources, competing priorities, and the wants and needs of other people.
In healthcare, where the priority is on operations (pun intended), it can be especially difficult to corral the right resources. Project work like IT upgrades, performance improvement, and innovation efforts can be waylaid by the pressing needs of providers, staff, managers and the patients they serve. The innovation recruits have day jobs that constrain their focus and availability, limiting the potential of innovation to scale. Add in the logistical hurdles of a geographically dispersed workforce spread across time zones with distinct office cultures, and the prospect of getting everyone in the same room or headspace begins to dissolve.
If building the Innovation Brigade is out of reach, and everyone is too busy with other priorities (sometimes literally life or death), what can an innovation leader do? Guerrilla Innovation could be the answer.
In the Guerrilla Innovation process, a dedicated, agile team coordinates and conducts all the activities of a large innovation project without placing undue burden or stress on others. Analogous to Guerrilla Marketing, this strategy leverages a small group's agility to overcome the inertia of large organizations. Instead of railing against people's resistance to change, the innovator executes managerial jujutsu and turns the bureaucratic inertia into momentum for innovation.
One by one, you are converting skeptics into evangelists by supporting the development of their own solutions for their own problems. Eventually, you reach a critical mass of departments piloting viable concepts that cannot be stopped because their value and feasibility have already been proven and demonstrated. As other departments begin requesting the solutions for themselves, the pilots are standardized for enterprise-wide implementation, launched, and operationalized.
For Guerrilla Innovation to work, the innovation mentors embed themselves alongside subject matter experts (SME), Jane Goodall style. Their focus is first on understanding the context of the SME and then shepherding the SMEs through the innovation process without disrupting the normal course of operations.
Embedment doesn't necessarily mean pitching a tent in the finance office and documenting the number of times somebody says "Capital expenditure." That is an option, but you're more likely to find yourself included in next year's budget if you begin with more casual interactions like meeting over breakfast or lunch.
It boils down to an attitude and approach of "seek first to understand." Rather than contending with a conference room full of competing motives and opinions, you have the opportunity to listen and empathize with the individual SME's unique perspective. This is especially appealing to introverted innovation mentors whose quiet nature is well suited to the task.
Starting from the perspective of "You are interesting and I'd like to learn more about you and your role in the organization," is much more appealing than "I am going to turn your entire world upside down whether you like it or not."
The keys in Guerrilla Innovation are to arrange as many of these subdued innovation interactions with individual SMEs as necessary and to synthesize the insights from each interaction. Your small, agile team will adjust the innovation project based on the patterns that emerge. You become an aggregator and conduit for the innovation process, sharing insights between SMEs, shepherding them through the phases of the innovation methodology, and demonstrating viability to the organization’s leadership. High potential concepts will emerge for development, dead ends will be discovered, and common stumbling blocks will be resolved en route to implementation.
This solution is extremely effective in overcoming apparent resistance to change, such as individuals who may be highly vocal and obstructive in a large group setting, and those who have very legitimate concerns. By forming a relationship in one-to-one interactions or shadowing the individual on the job, the individual has the proper time and setting to consider the merits of the potential innovation. More importantly, it helps the SME trust you and therefore trust in the innovation process.
I have engaged with an SME who literally began our first meeting by saying “I’m skeptical and don’t see how this is going to work.” By listening to their concerns, sharing examples from other prototypes for how others overcame similar doubts, and exploring the SME’s role, together we discovered three unique concepts to prototype. Our conversation ended with the SME literally saying “You convinced me. I’m excited. I think this is going to work.”
Embedding the innovation mindset and persuading individuals is just the start. Guerrilla Innovation is a viable strategy for long-term organizational transformation initiatives. One of the advantages of Guerrilla Innovation is that it is sustainable ad infinitum. Extending the innovation process over time and across individuals maintains a more dynamic approach than discrete stages or singular events. It allows an organization to conduct many simultaneous prototypes which reinforce each other and inherently stoke divergent thinking for continuous improvement.
Swiftly moving through the phases of framing, discovering, and ideating in meetings as brief as one hour greatly accelerates the innovation process. One hour is a much more accessible commitment compared to days spent away from the job, so participants are much more willing to participate with minimal opportunity costs for doing so. When more depth of exploration is needed, shadowing the SME provides even more time for discovery and ideation without pulling them away from being productive.
The biggest challenge with Guerrilla Innovation is the risk of isolation. Compared to the gravitas of an iLab when a group dedicates multiple days to a retreat-style innovation session, the dispersed and understated nature of Guerrilla Innovation may be interpreted as inconsequential. Spreading the innovation process across many people creates the conditions for confusion, misinformation, and delays. At the outset, it will be very tough to see any progress. It will take a while before insights emerge and you reach your first success. Be patient and persistent. Eventually, you will reach a tipping point of buy-in from individuals and success in prototyping. When you reach this milestone, you must leverage the success as an example for other participants and for leaders’ continued support.
To overcome these challenges, the innovation mentors need buy-in and active support from the top of the organization. Even if the solutions make sense at ground level, they remain subject to the prevailing procedures, processes, and policies of the organization. In healthcare, standardization is fundamental to quality of care. Governance and incentives are laboriously structured for compliance, not for innovation. The industry is heavily regulated and there is tremendous risk when individuals act outside of the established guidelines of an organization. In this case, executive permission is insufficient. Instead, an executive mandate is required in conjunction with clear and consistent communication with leaders and middle managers.
Begin with the assumption that change in your organization takes a long time and that it will always take a long time. Making this assumption shouldn’t be too hard as it describes most organizations. If your organization doesn’t fit this mold, then congratulations! You do not need Guerrilla Innovation (but you can still use it if you want to).
Guerrilla Innovation is for the long haul. Your project goals should be about where the organization needs to be in five to ten years and beyond. It is not a one-and-done event; it is methodically achieving incremental wins towards these visionary objectives. These shouldn’t be goals like new name badges or expanding the menu in the cafeteria. These should be fundamentally transformative for your organization and industry. New paradigms and previously unimagined modes for delivering value are a good starting point.
When you have the vision, you will have at least one or more visionaries. These people need to be in a position to do something about it, preferably in the executive suite. The form of Guerrilla Innovation I describe is very much cooperational and collaborative. It is revolutionary in terms of transformative change, not in terms of revolting or overthrowing a regime. You collectively acknowledge the current realities of your organization and are working together for a common goal. If your innovation team doesn’t have executive support, you won’t be sufficiently resourced and will not have the authority to overcome inevitable barriers to change.
After you have the vision and some executive champions, you need a dedicated innovation team. These folks should be all innovation, all the time. It’s tempting to pull individuals in part-time, but that’s more along the lines of Moonlighting Innovation than Guerrilla Innovation. The dedicated team needs to be independent, preferably with direct accountability to the executives. Unencumbered by departmental budgets and personnel history, the innovation team acts objectively in the best interest of the organization. They bring fresh eyes and no assumptions about the way things have been, are now, or should be in the future. If your organization doesn’t have the resources for a fully dedicated team, then your organization may be too small for Guerrilla Innovation to be effective; some other innovation approach would be better suited to your needs.
When you have the vision, executive champions, and a dedicated team with resources, you can move forward in the phases of the innovation methodology. At this point it is similar to any other innovation project; deploy innovation tools and methods as appropriate moving from frame through launch, rinse, and repeat. The nuance is that you will be doing it rapidly with very small groups over time. Trust your intuition and allow the process to guide your efforts.
Remember that you are not trying to change the organization all at once; you are serving as an instrument empowering individuals to solve their own problems. As individuals change, the organization will change too.
Thank you to Matt Krathwohl and the 2016-2017 cohort of the Certified Innovation Mentor program at the Stayer Center for Executive Education at the University of Notre Dame for all of your inspiration.
Thank you to my colleagues at Beacon Health System: Mary Kuhr Anderson, Patty Tomaszewski and Lori Turner for your support.