Embracing Change: Fostering Innovation In The C-Suite and Beyond

Dr. Michael O’Brien
No matter where in the c-suite you sit from, preparing to lead through failure is essential.

For decades, the best executives were the specialists. Now, in the age of innovation, the ability to lead through disruption may be far more powerful.

In the C-suite, we often hone in on the middle letter, the “X” in CXO. It’s what sets one role apart from another, denotes the person who works on finance vs. the one in charge of marketing — no matter what the “X” stands for, what it really indicates is specialization. But in a healthcare environment where innovation and collaboration are driving game-changing decisions, the “C” and “O” in CXO — the letters the c-suite share — are perhaps more important.

Here’s why: CFOs, for example, are no longer seen as the ones who simply crunch the numbers of change. They’re now being asked to bring their own ideas for change to the table, and further, help implement those strategies across the organization. Now, far more than just the “F” of “financial,” CFOs (and all of the c-suite) have to exercise the “chief” and “officer” aspects of their positions to affect change throughout their organizations.

So what does this mean for healthcare leaders? Most importantly, it means that success at the executive level is no longer solely pinned to an individual’s skill in their given discipline. During this period of change, a proactive focus on improving skills around implementation and interdepartmental work will go a long way.

Here are three focus areas to help get you started:

start with the self

Right off the bat, it’s critical you come to terms with the fact that success in an organization that values innovation requires different ingredients than those required in environments in which you might be used to working.

Returning to the example of the CFO, success in managing financials requires an ability to avoid risks. Driving innovation, on the other hand, requires taking risks. To make that adjustment (or another one like it your functional area) there’s no way around the fact that you’ll have to step out of your comfort zone to succeed.

How?
Getting more comfortable outside of your comfort zone is hard. If you need proof, just reread that sentence! The first step to making it easier is preparing yourself for the difficulty that lies ahead. By familiarizing yourself with the discomfort ahead of time, you won’t be surprised when it rears its head — most importantly, you won’t blame yourself.

It’s a natural response to doubt yourself and wonder if you’re not cut out for innovation when an idea falls apart. Preparing yourself for failure ahead of time will allow you to move past those doubts and take smarter steps forward.

teach others

Once you begin to master being comfortable with change yourself, then you’re going to have to help get others there. Operational thinking is rational, logical and measured. Innovative thinking is sometimes not obviously rational, is almost always intuitive, and requires the organization to take risks. Breaking the rigidity of operational thinking cannot happen overnight.

How?
Teams often see operational excellence for today and innovative risk-taking for tomorrow as being at complete odds with one another. What comes next? They quickly turn them into a head-to-head, winner-take-all battle. We teach executives to reframe the prevalent “either/or” mindset with a question that includes “both/and.”

Watch what happens when you frame the discussion like this: “How can we take advantage of both our operational efficiency and become more innovative in a way that meets the needs of our customers?” Suddenly, two factions in disagreements are put on the same side of a challenge, to do something neither side has done before.

work with the team

Any transition in expectations is going to lead to breakdowns — when someone doesn’t act the way you think they should have — and the change from pure execution to innovative thinking is no different. At these moments when trust and composure break down, strong leadership may be the hardest, but it is also needed the most.

How?
Resist the urge to meet breakthroughs with frustration. When we see conflict, it’s natural to pick a side (try to remember the last time you watched a sports game without picking a side to root for, even if you didn’t know either team). Avoid picking and defending the viewpoint that sounds most like your own, or even supporting the team member you feel was most “in the right.” Instead, humour yourself and try the other viewpoint on for size. Replacing conflict with candid discussion often turns difficult decisions into opportunities for further creativity and more innovative solutions.

Leading through disruption is inherently uncomfortable, for both yourself, your organizations, and your teams. But leaders who can lead from breakdown to breakthrough stand to excel far beyond their specialty in the c-suite and become true value drivers in the age of innovation.