Apple Watch has now been launched. I’ve had mine for two months, and it’s making a difference to the way I work and live. The activity app prompts me to stand rather than sit, to walk up escalators, to watch the calories. There is visibility of what is coming up on the calendar, so less stress of missing something. The weather app means that I can prepare better and not get caught out. And of course I can just wave the Watch at the scanner in Starbucks to get my coffee – now decaf.
This is one example of the way innovation is changing our lives. I remember the waiting list in the NHS for electric typewriters in 1980. We have come quite some way since then. However, there is still quite some way to go – and I feel that we have not even begun to tap into the benefits of technology and innovation as we take the journey to reducing the £30b deficit.
All this is of interest to boards. This is the third in a series of six blogs about board effectiveness – the earlier two covered the system in which the board operates and its approach to operational effectiveness. This third covers the board’s approach to innovation.
The majority of people reading this will be ‘digital migrants’ – namely you have migrated into technology, rather than it coming naturally. It’s Gen Y who are ‘digital natives’, who know how to text with two thumbs. Given the generation profile of those who sit on boards, it’s fair to say that technology does not come as naturally as it does to those down the organisation hierarchy. This is a problem, given both the leverage technology can bring to change, and the lack of insight among board members to what technology offers.
The case for technology was made by Jim Collins in his seminal study Good to Great. He illustrated the leverage that technology could bring to change, likening it to the lever on the flywheel, enabling it to go around faster and faster. Of course, he began with the focus on what he called Level 5 leaders who demonstrate humility and focus on the task at hand, with technology as the lever for change. Obama won two elections on the back of having better technology than the completion – conversely Michael O’Leary found that world class technology could not take the place of a smile. Technology disrupts too – look at Uber’s impact on black cabs and home shopping on the big retailers.
Boards therefore need to think ‘innovation’ and technology. The £30b deficit will not be closed by tinkering – it needs radical change, embracing technology. As Steve Jobs stated, Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. So how does the board lead on innovation?
First, what is the board’s approach to risk? If you expect staff to innovate, then failure will occur. As Tim Cook, current CEO of Apple, unkindly observed about the merits of Microsoft’s Windows 8, You can converge a toaster and refrigerator, but these things are probably not pleasing to the user. He was right. How does your board deal with failures of this type? If they become a learning process to then change service delivery processes for the better, then celebrate failure. Just don’t keep making the same mistakes. As a non-exec I was always looking for the learning from SUIs and other failures that resulted from trying things differently.
Secondly, what is the board’s approach to adoption of innovations from elsewhere? The ‘not invented here’ syndrome pervades the NHS. This is how bureaucracies operate. It was John D Rockefeller who observed, An organisation is a system, with a logic of its own, and all the weight of tradition and inertia. The deck is stacked in favour of the tried and proven way of doing things and against the taking of risks and striking out in new directions. Variation in the NHS is astounding. If McDonald’s can flip burgers the same way across the world, then why can’t the NHS do the same with its standard procedures? The board needs to lead the way in taking on vested interests that are obstacles to adoption of best practice.
Finally there is innovation around behaviour change, e.g. Nudge. We are all nudged in a certain direction, whether by supermarkets placing merchandise on their shelves, or airlines encouraging you to buy their insurance. Behavioural change is now driving government policy design and implementation, and can be applied locally. Boards need to champion this type of innovative thinking – to lead by example.