Developing a Healthy Culture of Innovation at St. Luke’s

By Sharon Fisher | August 24, 2022

As observers such as Clayton Christensen have noted, it’s tough for big organizations to maintain a culture of innovation. St. Luke’s Health System wants to change that.

The nonprofit health organization is setting up an internal organization that is intended to help it look at problems with more of an innovation mindset. For now, the organization is being known as the Innovation Center of Excellence.

“We have dreams of a cooler name,” laughed Molly Zimmer, the product manager leading the Innovation Center.

What is the Innovation Center of Excellence?

The name derives from “clinical centers of excellence,” health organizations for which St. Luke’s has very clear guidelines, Zimmer said. The Innovation Center of Excellence comes from the business side and is intended to be a small team of people responsible for understanding best practices and methodologies and who are thought leaders for the organization in that particular area, she said. For example, it will be recommending a common language, toolkits, and processes for giving innovation a structure that it has not previously had at St. Luke’s, she said. 

Currently, the organization is still in its infancy, and has three major “buckets” under its umbrella, Zimmer said. 

First is culture. “We are really working hard to share in multiple ways a common language,” Zimmer said. That will provide a mindset that the organization needs to have to be innovative, as well as exercises and tools it can use for the best possible outcomes.

Image courtesy of Molly Zimmer.

Second is services, which will allow the organization help multiple departments work through challenges and come to the Innovation Center to get services for that process, Zimmer said. That work could include using tools to make sure all the stakeholders are on the same page, or at least identity that they’re right about the assumptions they’re making, she said.

This could eventually lead to the third bucket – “the least developed, but the most exciting,” Zimmer said – which would be an opportunity for St. Luke’s to potentially invest in local medical technology entrepreneurs, she said. “That would be a huge piece of the Innovation Center vision,” she said. “We are building the foundation and framework of how it would work before we ask for investment – proof and evidence that it would work, before we say, ‘give us some money.’”

How did the Innovation Center come about?

Zimmer reports to St. Luke’s CIO Reid Stephan, and about three years ago, he went to a conference for CIOs where he learned about this concept.

“He caught the innovation bug,” Zimmer said. “He was inspired by the way it was presented – not as a moon shot, Elon Musk crazy intimidating thing, but as ‘hey, there are repeatable ways you can look at a problem and run it through these series of different tests and have a higher probability of success.’”

So St. Luke’s planned a program in its IT department to look at innovation – and then COVID-19 hit.

Ironically, COVID made St. Luke’s more amenable to change, Zimmer said. 

“One of the interesting things that happened as a result, in a lot of health systems, is we had to rush through our risk-averse mindset to meet the demands of what was going on at the time,” Zimmer said. Consequently, it created a more fertile ground in which to launch the program, which started about a year ago. 

The St. Luke’s innovation accelerator

Now, St. Luke’s is about a month into its first innovation accelerator program, a 16-week program with a cross-functional team of six people – individual contributors, not managers, Zimmer emphasized — to develop a process that will result in an answer to the problem by the end of that 16 weeks. In this particular case, the problem is to solve for ongoing challenge of commuting for St. Luke’s employees in the Treasure Valley. 

“Our goal is to both ease the increasing financial burden of gas prices and support St. Luke’s key initiative of environmental sustainability,” Zimmer said. “This isn’t a new problem, and there are programs in place to try to address this issue. We’ll keep those top-of-mind as we work through the process of testing how to either creatively boost utilization of existing services or reimagine new solutions to the commuting problem.”

The process includes defining the problem, identifying the customer, performing customer interviews, and otherwise going through an iterative process to solve the problem. The group is scheduled to present its solution the first week of November and talk about the process. There’s also a vice president overseeing the area, so they can champion the solution, if they believe it’s a viable one, to try out as an organization, she said. Or, since it’s a pilot, St. Luke’s could choose to take lessons learned and repeat the process again with a different cohort, she said. 

“We need our challenge to start with leadership, so that when we develop something, there’s no question that we’re going to move forward,” Zimmer said. “That’s a big piece we have to work out.”

Then what?

At that point, the Innovation Center needs to evaluate whether it’s going to build its team. “With a team of two, one accelerator is really all we can handle,” Zimmer explained. “Where we really want to focus is on building trust with the departments in the organization.” 

For example, the Innovation Center is working with a patient experience group with one challenge, where the group has tried several solutions but can’t pinpoint the issue, Zimmer said. The group can come in and have the Innovation Center help them define the problem, identify the stakeholders and customers, create interview guides, and interview those people. 

“A lot of people skip that step,” Zimmer noted.

After that, the group and the center can think of the next steps, such as how to ideate a solution, what assumptions the group is making, and how to test out the ideas. “We really want to focus on being a trusted partner and meeting them where they are,” she said. “We are supporting people in the work they’re already doing and how these tools can apply, rather than coming in and saying, ‘let’s go all-in on the accelerator.’” 

By slowly building trust in this way, when the Innovation Center truly launches, more teams will be interested in having their employees go through the accelerator program, Zimmer explained. 

What the Innovation Center will look like

Eventually, Zimmer hopes the Innovation Center will have a team of four or five people “who are really agile, because we need people who can manage several different buckets of work,” including facilitating and educating through the accelerator programs, she said. Ideally, the team will be a rotating cast of employees as more staff members work through the accelerator program, she said.

They’ll also need funding.

“Everything we’ve done so far has been without a budget,” Zimmer said. “We’re really scrappy. But we absolutely will have to have a budget because there are expenses we will have” – particularly as the organization works toward the “third bucket” where it’s investing in startups. “We don’t have that figured out yet,” she said. 

And chances are, the Innovation Center going to reach beyond the boundaries of St. Luke’s, Zimmer said. “There are many players in the Treasure Valley in the healthcare space,” noting that the organization will be partnering the medical technology track at Boise Entrepreneur Week with her compatriot at Saltzer Health. “When you really dig into some of the consumer access and experience issues, I feel like we really have to address that collectively,” she said.

Sharon Fisher is a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.

This article was created as a collaboration between Boise Entrepreneur Week, Built in Idaho and Trailhead