October 17, 2018

Is Fear Stopping Innovation Before It Starts?

We have all felt it. Though we rarely admit it. At least out loud.

We hide it. We deny it. We say, “Not me.”

Sidestepping our fears may give us temporary comfort, but facing our fears directly moves us forward. And the patients we ultimately serve are pleading with us to move forward as quickly as possible to find a better way.

Fear, like all of our emotions, is controlled by our brain’s limbic system, which is often referred to as the famous “lizard brain.” It tells us to “fight” or “flight” when we are faced with extreme fear. However, it often gives us a third directive – to freeze. Just like a deer caught in headlights, unable to think or move.

Fear can keep us from taking action, especially bold action. Which of course, is exactly what is often needed to succeed in one of the most volatile industries in our economy.

The boogeyman is real. And he has friends.

Few industries are faced with as many challenges as are in today’s health care space. Any one of these challenges could pose a serious risk to a normal business, but to face so many challenges, and at the same time…it is understandably frightening for most health system executives.

According to the American College of Healthcare Executives survey released earlier this year, there are plenty of things that might keep hospital CEOs up at night.

Medicaid reimbursements, increasing costs, government funding cuts, bad debt, competition, transition from volume to value, insurance payments, capital improvements, emergency department overuse, CMS regulations, legislative uncertainty, cost of compliance, state mandates, price transparency, nurse shortages and primary care physician shortages.

In addition, marketing executives have their own reasons for restless nights.

Rising consumer expectations, remaining relevant in the marketplace, differentiated positioning, consumer trust, competition, media fragmentation, personalization, brand experiences, social listening, compelling storytelling, patient loyalty, measuring what matters, ROI, HIPAA compliance and budget shortages. And of course, the threat that AI is going to take everyone’s job away within five years.

Several of our clients have admitted, “I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t even know where to begin. There are too many things to consider.” Unfortunately, feeling overwhelmed due to the volume of priorities generates a whole new set of challenges to innovation.

The volume of items that need to be addressed limits the amount of time we can spend thinking about each one. It’s simple math. In such cases, we tend to go into default mode and address them in the exact manner we had previously, or else we fear we will run out of time. We simply tell ourselves there is no time to think differently.

Master jugglers.

In general, our profession is made up of overachieving, hardworking people whose heart is in the right place. People who want to accomplish a lot, and with perhaps a touch of FoMO (Fear of Missing Out). “Letting go” and “no” are phrases most of us are not too familiar with. We tend to take on as much as the day, and evening, will allow.

The result is we try to do it all, and usually all at the same time. We keep all of the balls in the air. But in doing so, we may be doing ourselves a great disservice with regards to seeing opportunities for innovation.

Juggling multiple priorities keeps our eyes focused on what’s right in front of us. Extreme concentration is required. We follow everything closely for fear we may drop something if we take our eyes off today’s task list to look out at tomorrow’s possibilities.

I have spoken with many professionals who struggle with this. In some cases, it’s so severe they literally cannot have a conversation about a strategic opportunity until weeks down the road, because they say they simply have no mental capacity available. They can’t juggle one more thing, no matter how big the opportunity may be.

This ultimately forces us to sacrifice depth in exchange for breadth. This can help us move many things forward incrementally, but it can also prevent us from seeing the opportunity for the bold action that leads to innovation.

Is best practice always best? 

Practice makes perfect. And the best practice is the one everybody uses. Again and again and again. Consistently. Many health systems cite surgical volume as a proof point toward top quality. And the statistics agree, as does the government and accrediting organizations.

Subspecialists rely on a similar rationale of consistency and practice makes perfect. A former client of ours—a member of a large successful orthopedic practice—once joked they had performed so many procedures they had both left and right hand subspecialists.

HCAHPS are based on standards and collecting uniform information. Patients are checked at consistent times and with the hope that key vital signs remain positively consistent.

The idea that consistency equals quality runs throughout the culture of health care. And that is a great thing because it saves lives and results in better outcomes for patients. However, innovation is based on the idea that something must “change,” which at times can be in direct conflict with “consistency.”

I have visited many hospitals and conducted numerous interviews with executives, physicians and staff on a variety of topics. When I start probing about why things are the way they are, I have been amazed at how many times I hear, “…Because that’s how we’ve always done it.” When I suggest a potential change, some are excited, but many hesitate, and a bit of fear of the unknown begins to show in their face. Not the type of big fear that generates night sweats, but just a little bit of fear, enough that can prevent action and exploration.

Fear of change is most prominent in a culture built on consistency. There are fewer industries that succeed, and pride themselves, based on the importance of consistency than health care.

Rock the boat.

In most other jobs, people can blow off the seriousness of the situation with comments like, “…Come on, it’s not brain surgery” or “No one’s going to live or die based on what we do.” But in health care, often the situation is that serious.

And the people we may interact with are often well educated, smart and sometimes intimidating. They have saved lives, delivered lives or hired those who have.

The status quo has a lot of status in the health care industry. It is both a perceived and real barrier to innovation.

This can make you think twice before recommending something that could be truly innovative, or even a dramatic change. What if you are wrong? Will you look foolish? Will fewer patients show up for that lung screening? Will the new physician complain to the board?

Something as simple as using humor in a marketing campaign is often seen as risky, even though research shows laughter is one of the best forms of “medicine” to make someone feel better.

The higher the stakes, the more conservative we become. We tolerate less risk and begin to fear failure.

Fear of failure is a sure way to fail at building a culture of innovation. Innovation actually requires failure. Key concepts such as human-centered design, rapid-prototyping and MPV (minimal viable product) are built on the concept of failing, though in a safe environment, so a better solution can be found.

Marketing and Innovation.

In his classic The Practice of Management, the late Peter Drucker stated, “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

While many would argue with such a bold statement, when you think about it further, you realize the philosophy is sound. Marketing addresses how to best acquire customers, and innovation addresses how you deliver a superior product (or service) to your customers. Everything else supports these two functions. Apple, Amazon and CVS Health are examples of this focus in successful practice.

Peter Drucker’s statement dates back to 1954, but only recently have we started to see innovation taken seriously as a business topic in hospitals. We see the rising number of Chief Innovation Officers residing in the c-suites of larger health system brands and progressive hospitals. One could argue this is a result of CEOs fearing the lack of innovation, or the current pace of innovation is seen as detrimental to the long-term success of the organization, and they will not measure up to the expectations set by the Board of Directors.

Overcoming fear.

There are many “built-in” barriers to innovation within the health care industry. And quite a few of them can be linked back to fear. The fear of making the wrong choice. The fear of not having enough time to make the best decision. The fear of missing something if you don’t focus on everything. The fear of change. The fear of failure. The fear of not living up to expectations. The list could go on.

Fear is a natural emotion and we all experience it at some time. It’s okay. The difference can be how we deal with it. Most studies suggest the best way to deal with fear is to confront it and take action.

Coincidentally, that is also a good way to approach innovation. Identify the problem, confront it with a fresh perspective and take actions to solve it.

And if we think about the biggest problems facing our industry—the problems that really do scare us—perhaps instead of fear being a barrier to innovation, fear can be a compass, directing us to where innovation is needed most.

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Click here to view the original article from Healthcare Marketing Report.

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