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Foster Innovation

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Foster Innovation

The term innovation literally means to introduce something new. While it is often reserved for something that is groundbreaking or that significantly advances a field, innovation is best understood in this context as a process that leads to improved products, methods, processes, or thinking. We are constantly involved in the innovation process, venturing away from the familiar and comfortable towards the challenging and novel. Sometimes innovations are quite serendipitous and instantaneous, but most often they are the result of a process that can be enhanced or hindered by individuals, organizations, paradigms, and cultural norms.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are well-suited to foster innovation, particularly using an approach that relies on collaboration and co-development. By their nature––or rather their organizing principles and structure––CoPs promote relationship-building between members who are passionate about a particular domain and who are interested in learning from the experiences of other members. Members voluntarily and collegially interact with one another to improve their practice. Any new ideas are typically well scrutinized by other members and are constantly checked against experience. Additionally, CoP activities lend themselves to a cooperative development model (with transparency and specified rules of engagement, by storytelling, and through collaboration tools).

Enabling Innovation in Public Health
So, how can your CoP enable innovation in public health? First, encourage small work-groups to take products and processes and begin to improve upon them. If your domain needs new processes or products, have the work groups consider spearheading those items. Draw inspiration from some of the initial work of your community, like the results of a brainstorming session or a member priority survey. Remember to track your progress over time. Refer to the Evaluate section and the “Innovation Tracking Tool” to help your community keep up with the innovative processes and products it’s developing.

If your community is still not sure what work groups should be doing, refer back to your SMART Objectives. Remember that innovation is not just for innovation’s sake, but critical to furthering the complex and expanding work of public health. Selected community projects should emerge from personal passions of the membership as well as the need of the field and priorities for public health, not from a top-down directive by an outside stakeholder.

When the work-group is ready with a bright idea, have them share their idea with others in the community and engage others as co-developers in the process. Don’t just look for feedback from potential program implementers or consumers about what might and might not work. Get public health practitioners and community representatives, including those in your CoP, involved in the research and development process.20 While the initial idea and passion to move it forward will come from within the community, you might also seek to involve individuals outside of the community to assist in the co-development process.

Here are some suggestions to help your community innovate—develop ideas, methods, and products, or improve upon existing ones:

Develop a plausible promise. It is important to develop a “prototype” or outline of something that stakeholders will really want or need. It can be crude, but the conceptual base has to be good enough to engage an early group of stakeholders enough that they are willing to jump-in and participate.20 Remember, it’s likely you will need to use an iterative process to assure your stakeholders that your “promise” is actually plausible. Even though your initial idea was probably great, it’s probably not the one that makes it through the final gate.20,23

Find both a process champion and a product champion. A process “champion” is someone who shepherds the development methodology and ensures that multiple needs are being met— community members and their parent organizations, the public health community, and the CoP sponsor—and that stakeholders get comfortable with a course of action that may be new to them. A product “champion” is someone who is highly motivated, has knowledge, and can tout the potential benefits of the innovation to early adopters and potential implementers or consumers. Much like your sponsor champions your community, your product champion will promote your community’s outputs.

Keep it simple. It’s easy to strive for the newest, the latest, the boldest, and the best, when you are thinking about innovation. But keep in mind that it is unlikely to be productive if you are aiming to dazzle people with ingenuity and cleverness.20,22 When seeking to foster innovation, it is reasonable to first start for a small and quick win that demonstrates the value of your community and energizes members. The Public Health Vocabulary Community of Practice (PHVCoP), which has since evolved into the Vocabulary and Messaging Community of Practice (VM CoP), realized early on that it needed to start by explaining the issue and making a compelling case for standard vocabulary before it could begin work on leveraging standard vocabularies.

Work with partners. It is important to find voluntary partners and practitioners who have a need for your work and are able to commit their energy, time, and resources. You may find some people who are simply intrigued by your product or process, but they will likely be more motivated over time if they have a real need for what you are developing. Additionally, they are in the best position to offer real-world solutions to problems if they have the hands-on experience that allows them to contribute to a viable solution.20,22

Keep egos in check. Innovators should not approach the situation with dreams of personal glory, nor should they become territorial or defensive. Remember, the best development is a result of passion, not personal profit.22

Develop a novelty review and selection process. Your community won’t accept every innovation made by other members. You need a person or group to make these decisions. You may want to appoint one person who retains final control over what gets modified and what does not, but only after a peer review process has occurred.20,22

Be patient. It is very easy to get excited when a first round of adopters is excited about your idea or product. However, it is important to fully develop and improve upon your concept and pilot before promoting it for expanded adoption. Don’t jump from start-up to expansion without adequately adapting your product or process.20,22

Track your progress. Refer to the "Evaluate a CoP" section and the “Innovation Tracking Tool” to help your community keep up with the innovative processes and products it’s developing.

Related Resource

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Innovation Tracking Tool [DOC - 227KB]

Complete the Innovation form for each new idea, product, or improvement that your CoP develops. Incorporate these in your annual review of accomplishments and also use them as a pool from which to draw ideas for articles and abstracts. This Microsoft Word template provides a means to record and track innovations that emerge from CoPs.

Members of Communities of Practice (CoPs) who are working in work groups to develop or improve products or processes

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