Encouraging innovation is common sense

Written by
Paul Kirkham

12 Apr 2016

12 Apr 2016 • by Paul Kirkham

This ought to be of enormous significance to any organisation. After all, since everyone is blessed with at least some measure of common sense, it follows that every employee at every level is capable of coming up with an idea that could prove truly transformative. So the potential is there which, to put it mildly, represents a considerable untapped resource.

Sadly, things seldom work out like that – not because common sense is in short supply but because in most organisations the structures necessary to recognise it and channel it don’t exist. The average worker may well hit upon a “game-changer”, but what she or he can’t begin to imagine is that anyone higher up the chain of command might be genuinely interested in hearing about it.

There are means of tackling this quandary, but before we come to them let's look at a few examples of how applying common sense can make a massive difference to the success of an organisation and its stakeholders.

Lessons from healthcare

Why do we need checklists? Not because we’re stupid. We need them because we’re clever enough to know how easy it is to overlook the most mundane considerations. Money, keys, phone. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre. Luggage, tickets, passport. We use mental checklists all the time in our day-to-day lives.

Bearing this in mind, it now seems incredible that for decades there was no such thing as a surgical checklist. According to pilot studies worldwide, this one-page document has reduced related mortality rates and complications by 47% and 36% respectively. Correct patient? Check. Correct limb? Check. Felt-tip pen? Check. X marks the spot? Check. Simplicity itself – yet, in the opinion of the president of the US Institute for Healthcare Improvement, perhaps the single most effective clinical care innovation of recent years.

Now consider what the world’s most extravagant sport might have in common with caring for sick children. A curious notion, you might think, but this is precisely what two heart surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital did when they found themselves watching a Formula 1 Grand Prix on TV at the end of a demanding day in the operating theatre.

What Professor Martin Elliott and Dr Alan Goldman noticed as the race progressed were the uncanny similarities between F1 pit-stops and hospital “handovers” – the process by which patients are transferred from one team to another when they move from surgery to intensive care. The major difference, Elliott and Goldman noted, was that McLaren, Ferrari and the rest had their routines down to a fine art.

Intrigued, the pair spoke to McLaren and Ferrari about leadership and organisation. They discussed rhythm, task allocation and all the other basics that for some reason had never been embedded in the culture of the clinical handover. They grasped the crucial importance of someone taking charge, as the “lollipop man” does in a pit-stop situation.

The result of this inspired collaboration was the wholesale restructuring of protocols, including the integration of a well-defined chain of command, detailed checklists and clear contingency plans. Handover errors have since halved.

The importance of being heard

The above examples illustrate the power of common sense and of appreciating that answers lurk everywhere. The chances are that every one of us, even if unwittingly, has overcome a problem by redefining it in broader terms, finding an analogous instance where the issue has been addressed and tailoring the solution to suit our circumstances. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon – or, indeed, a heart surgeon – to see the value in shifting from the specific to the general and back again.

But would those who aren’t surgeons seriously expected to be heard? Any member of Great Ormond Street’s team might have spotted the pit-stop analogy, but would, say, a nurse or a porter have been able to secure an audience with McLaren and Ferrari?

Studies by Nottingham University Business School have shown the ability to innovate – we might call it “vision” – isn’t an inexplicable gift bestowed on a lucky few. Appropriate guidance, mentoring and the freedom to “bounce ideas around” can help unlock, develop and refine the required skills in anyone.

Accepting this, surely we can see there’s no need to wait to get lucky. Serendipity is all very well, but the ideal innovative organisation cuts to the chase by encouraging creative problem-solving at all levels and considering each and every new way of thinking, irrespective of its origin.

The fact is that good ideas can come from anywhere and anybody. And if they aren’t to go to waste then a genuinely meaningful culture of innovation – as opposed to mere rhetoric – has to start at the top and be all-pervasive.

It’s vital to acknowledge, and indeed expect that everyone is capable of contributing to the innovation process – and, just as importantly, that everyone deserves to be heard. When you think about it, this, too, is little more than common sense. QED.