Chris McCarthy Executive Director, Innovation Learning Network @McCarthyChris
What would an “innovation learning network” for healthcare look like? Coming off of two successful years of co-launching an internal innovation group at Kaiser Permanente in 2005, it was time to build and connect to a larger community, and it was clear that to be successful, the network had to be different and valuable. The “value” piece emerged quickly in two of the three Innovation Learning Network pillars: 1) Share innovations across systems and 2) Teach innovation and design technique. These were important, valuable and obvious.
And although, the “being different” piece emerged quickly as well, it was intentionally downplayed, almost hidden. And yet it’s why leaders and innovators have come back every six months for over a decade and why the ILN continues to grow at a healthy clip of 10% a year. I used to stumble when talking to new potential members about this third mysterious pillar. It felt weird and uncomfortable discussing its value and importance. But time and success has liberated us to now say:
“...and we are unapologetic that the third pillar is about cultivating friendship and it is the most valuable and important thing we do.”
There is nothing like the word “unapologetic” to quiet down a potential debate.
So yes, it’s true. Pillar Three is to cultivate innovation friendships. Friends want to hang out. Friends want to share. Friends want to help each other. Friends will pick up the phone. Friends return emails. By founding the ILN on friendship, we short circuit what learning networks often struggle with: commitment, motivation, value, and follow-up. It eliminates the need for the hub and spoke model that easily decays when the hub is removed. Should a connection drop away, the network of friends patches it up and keeps it going. The network is robust and self-healing.
This pillar also guides how we convene ourselves. For the first two years and then every two years thereafter, we used Open Space Technology (aka the Unconference) to drive our gatherings. Open Space radically expands all the parts of conferences like water cooler conversations and casual collisions and turns them into the main feature. It is a friendship-making machine.
And it directs the frequency of our gatherings. Every six months, we pull approximately 120 people from across the ILN to meet-up for three days of exchanging ideas, learning and teaching one another, and lots of laughter. These meetings are intense experiences, and face-to-face is the only way that these on-the-fly encounters can really unfold. It's the face-to-face that adds the complexity, warmth, and connection and fuels us for the next six months.
Why I hate networking
Networthless: "We’re not robots who are data mining. We’re people who are multidimensional and deeply complex. Celebrate this, and you will find yourself at amazing dinners, tasting new wines, laughing about old exes, AND making a connection to get your latest idea launched. Life is sweet, and the most unexpected, serendipitous moments are the sweetest."
Indeed, over time, I’ve started viewing our gatherings as rejuvenation and decompression events. Innovation is hard work. Every day, healthcare innovators are patching resources and weaving compelling visions together to keep the big thinking of innovation alive and thriving. The ILN InPerson is a brief moment where the innovator is amongst those who just “get them.” Where they can learn new skills and share ideas freely without judgement.
So does Pillar Three matter? Yep. These smart friendships, cultivated during our decade-long experiment, have proven their impact in several major areas:
2007-2008: Kaiser Permanente called on friends at Partners HealthCare, Alegent Creighton Health (now CHI Health), and Ascension Health. All four organizations shared the best and worst of medication administration which jump-started innovation efforts at KP. And this led to the breakthrough innovation called KP MedRite.
2008-2015: After two years of sharing telehealth work, the ILN team produced CareAnywhere, a landscape of telehealth of the present and near future. Partners HealthCare continued on to develop their Ambulatory Practice of the Future, of which elements were imported to UCLA Health. KP went on to develop their own version of CareAnywhere called “Imagining CareAnywhere.”
2015-2016: Group Health Cooperative developed a prototype to enable frail elders to age well. The backbone of their prototype came from Kaiser Permanente’s design research on the social space of elders called Redwood which was shared across the ILN.
And so we remain unapologetic about our three powerful pillars. Each contributes to the success of this network, but only one makes coming back over and over again easy and desirable. Now go make some innovation friends.