The Innovation Horizons Project – An Organizational View on Fostering a Culture of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

As the Executive Director for Innovation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), I have learned a great deal about large institutions, whether governmental, profit-driven businesses, or non-profit entities, that thrive on well-honed, routine management processes. I have also seen how bureaucracies serve these organizations well by bringing consistency, predictability, reliability, and stability into the important work that they do. These elements, for want of a better term, are what makes these institutions hum.

External and internal forces continuously challenge these routine management processes and our leaders are at times inadequately positioned to respond to them armed only with the outdated approaches of the past. Increasingly, leaders are looking for countervailing and transformational forces that their organization can harness and apply to overcome these new threats to their continued success. Often they ask, how can we test and adopt new business approaches that are needed to create new solutions, improve performance, and, sometimes even, retain our relevance?

This is at the heart of the issues examined in the Innovation Horizons Project – Fostering a Culture of Innovation and Entrepreneurship that the HHS IDEA Lab is publishing today.

The Innovation Horizons Project (IHP) was undertaken in the summer of 2016 to assess innovative management options for organizations to consider in promoting attitudes and mechanisms that enable new ideas to be tested and results to be embraced and enacted quickly.

The backdrop for this project was nearly eight years of activity within the Office of the Secretary of HHS. Our aim was to promote and advocate for innovation and our focus was to bring entrepreneurship practices to government.

In a massive government agency, I focused on creating a culture or system that encouraged and rewarded employees who responsibly embraced risk and experimentation. These pioneers were armed with new solutions aimed at enhancing the performance of our mission and protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans through HHS programs, projects, and policies.

Our thesis is designed as a look into the future for organizations undertaking an innovation agenda so they can understand critical success factors in achieving culture and process change to improve performance. Through an open, self-examining lens, this report shares experiences in management challenges that leaders should consider embracing to take innovation head-on:  top-down management driven versus employee-initiated approaches; innovation connected to strategic priorities or driven by opportunity; and ultimately, the question of how much value their innovation agenda brings to their organization in terms of results.

There are important new findings revealed from this report toward the question of how culture can be created and sustained. Successful programs rely on strong leadership presence and expressed values that are presented with clarity and specificity for all employees to embrace. The importance of metrics and linkage of projects to program outcomes and values is paramount to organizational acceptance.  Empathy – the ability to perceive change through the experiences of all stakeholders – must be valued and practiced at every step by those leading change. And, not only to acceptance of failure as one manifestation of risk-taking innovation practices, but in addition, setting an organization’s expectation of failure as a necessity for growth and impact.

My desire is that this thesis inspires more conversation about the culture of organizations and enables others to take their first step on their innovation journey.  I invite you to share your comments and suggestions in an open dialogue.

Finally, it is my duty to thank the hundreds of contributors to this work, and the leadership of Todd Park, Bryan Sivak, and Susannah Fox in their roles as HHS Chief Technology Officer who inspired it.