B.PHL Innovation Fest: Embracing the Innovation We Didn’t Ask for But Desperately Need
September 21, 2020
September 21, 2020

Peter Drucker famously said, “if you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” It’s a great way to shorthand the steps required to innovate an industry or organization. But what happens when you don’t realize you need something new until outside forces—a global pandemic, for example—thrust it upon you?

This week at the B.PHL innovation fest, Navigate and Connect the Dots’ Marisa Denker moderated a panel focused on “Designing How We Work Together,” which brought together perspectives on this topic from a $6B health system, the team spearheading innovation for the sixth-largest U.S. city, Amazon Web Services and a non-profit serving vulnerable populations. A varied group to be sure. But as large, complex organizations with multiple stakeholder groups, they’re wrestling with many of the same issues as they navigate the new normal.

As the discussion progressed, it was clear that the Drucker-esque “something new” they’re all striving for boiled down to improving how their people worked together, both internally and with customers. Here are a few of the hard-won lessons they shared.

Lesson 1: Your Stakeholders Aren’t Always Obvious

Viraj Patwardhan, VP of Digital Design & Consumer Experience at Jefferson Health, kicked off the session with an interesting point: News coverage of health care during the COVID-19 crisis has focused on patients and frontline workers, but his team at Jefferson had to dive deep to identify and support many other stakeholders in the organization. Yes, patients needed new ways to interact with their doctors, and their JeffConnect system supports that. But as a teaching hospital, they had to ensure that students—those future doctors and administrators we’ll all rely on—continued to receive the same high-quality education Jeff is known for. Similarly, other employees in the organization beyond the front line needed digital support as well. Just like workers in other industries, many of them left their desks and workstations in early March and needed new ways to do their jobs remotely.

The Takeaway: Organizations are simply masses of individuals working toward a common goal. Leaders need to focus on supporting each stakeholder group to extend their potential and create the “human-to-human” connections that drive collaboration and success. This requires knowing who those stakeholders are, and approaching them with the empathy needed to solve their pain points. 

Lesson 2: Sometimes Low-Tech Beats High-Tech

Have you noticed how everyone Zooms now when, in reality, sometimes a good-old-fashioned phone call would suffice? Eliza Pollack, Director of Innovation for the City of Philadelphia has. Her job is to position Philadelphia’s municipal government as not merely a consumer of innovation, but a driver of it.

So it may seem incongruous that her opening remarks focused on how she’ll frequently set up an easel with a flip chart behind her during virtual sessions instead of sharing her screen or presenting slides. Her goal is to emphasize equity and inclusion among stakeholders, which means recognizing that not everyone has the same aptitude for embracing new ways of working (especially when tinged by the shock and awe of a pandemic and all of the other changes that brings)

The Takeaway: When it comes to embracing new technology, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Diversity of thoughts and ideas is the true driver of innovation, so make sure you’re not inadvertently alienating voices in your rush to implement a new tool or platform. The focus should be on bringing people together when introducing new ways of working.

Lesson 3: Communicate, and then Communicate Again

Laurie Corbin is Managing Director for Community Engagement at PHMC, an organization that supports at-risk populations in Philadelphia. On the best days, communication is key to engaging these stakeholders. When the pandemic hit and her staff experienced disruption, the groups they supported required “over-communication” to stay engaged and on track toward their goals. Not an easy task when someone relies on in-person interaction and may not have a computer, phone or the connectivity required to stay in touch remotely. Staff quickly found new ways to engage these stakeholders, which sometimes meant meeting them where they are—figuratively and literally.

The Takeaway: Communication during times of disruption, even planned changes, is crucial to maintain stakeholder trust. For leaders managing change, this means setting the right tone at the top and checking in frequently with employees and stakeholders throughout the process—not just at the beginning, end or during key milestones.

Lesson 4: Act Now with an Eye on Long-Term Outcomes

Shonte Eldridge, Executive Government Advisor for Amazon Web Services, continued the meeting-people-where-they-are theme, remarking on how in just a few weeks the pandemic wiped out the viability of systems and processes we’ve relied on for 30+ years. Reimagining this now-defunct infrastructure requires organizations to move fast on new solutions without introducing new problems that will need to be solved later.

The Takeaway: As organizations continue to scramble and build contingency plans during the pandemic, it’s important to avoid stop-gap solutions wherever possible. Defaulting to short-term fixes will just lead to further disruption in the future. To truly reemerge stronger than before after this crisis, organizations will need to adopt a longer-term perspective when reevaluating and reimagining what’s possible.