The Two Keys to Driving IT Innovation

By incorporating design thinking and systems thinking into their everyday practices, IT organizations can create a truly innovative workplace culture.

Because the program head came to us with a desired experience, rather than a technological demand, it changed how we approached the situation. We were simply unable to fall back into our technology-focused comfort zone. We could not begin solving the technical issues until we had answered a much more fundamental question: What does the nurse-to-patient experience feel like in the real world? It was only from understanding that perspective that we could begin to emulate it in a telemedicine fashion.

As you can see, this was not some flash of brilliance on our part. We were simply responding to the situation the best we could. Circumstances led us to the path of innovation. But what we unknowingly did has deep academic roots in industrial design principles. The basic formula behind industrial design is to create a harmony between function and form in which the product, the user of that product and the environment in which it is being used have come together to create a positive, enjoyable and effective experience. At its best, industrial design mixes both creative and analytical approaches to create the best possible product. In our case, the product was our nurses, but the process is the same.

Needing to understand the nurse-patient experience, we spent a significant amount of time simply talking to the program head and her nurses about that experience. We spent some time in the hospital observing the real-life version of it. And we began formulating what a workflow might look and feel like that would best emulate the feel of a patient seeing a nurse in a clinical setting. It was industrial design 101—we just didn’t know it. And it formed the basis for how we would eventually create this breakthrough telemedicine application.

But mere design was not enough. We still had some thorny technical issues in front of us. And our answer to those issues is the second secret key to IT innovation.

Systems Thinking

Because we built our workflow model from an experience perspective rather than a technical perspective, we had completely uprooted our typical approach to technical development. We weren’t starting with a set of technical requirements. We were working from an experience-driven workflow. We weren’t talking about infrastructure or applications. We were talking about a nurse, a patient and what information or resources they needed at each step of their interactions.

Our first few meetings with the rest of the technical team were a bit awkward. Not having gone through the process with us, they were expecting us to dole out requirements to each team, just like we had always done. Instead, we were talking about nurses, patients and the nurse-patient experience. We got some very strange looks at first. Eventually, we realized that the ways in which we had previously developed new applications and interfaces wouldn’t work. And we unwittingly stumbled onto the second secret key to innovation: systems thinking.

Because we had arrived at this from an experience perspective, we could not simply translate that back into the technical and application silos from which we typically operated. It just didn’t make sense. So, we instead talked about two simple layers: experiential and enablement. That is, we broke apart the different elements of the experience we were trying to emulate and then looked at what data or information resources would be required to deliver that part of the experience. We were no longer talking about specific applications; we were treating the whole of our technical resources as a system and attempting to figure out how to pull from whatever we had available to create the target experience. Again, we had no idea that what we were exploring had a name, but we were practicing systems thinking.

Systems thinking is a concept made popular by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline. While Senge’s book covers a lot of ground, its basic premise is that in order to be effective and efficient, we cannot look at things in isolation, but must see everything as part of a highly interconnected system. Only by understanding all aspects of the system and the impacts of changes on one part of the system to its other parts could we effectively manage and improve the delivery of any product or service.

This article was originally published on 04-23-2013
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