I frequently joke with those that I work with that my dream job is to be the “Vice President of Big Thinking.”  It would be great to have the time to take all of the complex issues we are facing in healthcare, sit in a room and come up with big ideas and big solutions.  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find an economic resource willing to sponsor my dream, if not imaginary, job description. Here in the real world, it seems as if the dilemmas we are facing in healthcare- reimbursement, quality, access, legislation – are closing in on us from all sides and with no real solutions in sight and no time to take them on.

This week during the Annual Meeting of the American College of Physician Executives, I had the opportunity to have my mind stretched on this issue a bit and saw just a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.  I participated in a workshop on “Little Bets.”   It may be difficult to imagine a room full of over 200 left-brained, type A physician executives in “full creative mode,” but with some good facilitation it happened.  After a morning of doing improv acting, playing “soundball,” and generating ideas through the eyes of Einstein, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson to get our right brains engaged, an interesting thing happened – it worked. We actually began to come up with solutions that we could take home and implement.  And in the course of the day, I learned some important things about innovation and how we can all apply it.

Innovation doesn’t have to be big

We can all agree that our problems in healthcare are as big as they come, and most of us are approaching them from the top down with attempts at big solutions; developing an integrated delivery system, merging with another group, implementing a new IT solution.  Most of us seem to be constantly swinging for the fences, and in the process, our frustration grows.  Within the framework of Little Bets, the answer lies in “smallification”- starting to solve big problems by trying a bunch of little solutions, some of which will certainly fail.  But at the end of the day, those failures will lead us to some solutions that will stick, allowing us to get at the big problems piece by piece from the bottom up.  As the old adage reminds us; how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Anyone can do it

Many of us in leadership seem to believe that true innovation is reserved for those with lots of money or lots of time. We hear our peers criticizing ideas as too expensive, too disruptive, or too hard.  Frequently, this atmosphere of “can’t do” results in unworkable solutions that we feel the need to try despite their propensity for failure.  In the meantime, our wheels continue to spin in frustration.

This weekend’s creative workshop gave me hope that we can all have access to the type of creativity needed to break this cycle, but it can’t happen behind our desks in our typical work flow.  No committee on the planet is designed to create, they are designed to manage. With a new set of tools, a slightly uncomfortable approach, and very little time, I watched our group of physicians create new “real” healthcare solutions that were inexpensive, scalable, and could be made ready to go live virtually immediately.

Innovation is Fun

For many, the joy of working in healthcare seems to have evaporated.  The things that drew us to this profession of caring are clouded by the storms of finance and change.  But as I watched our group create solutions, I saw true passion and joy rekindled in many of my colleagues. The fact that we were coming up with real workable solutions, and even having fun doing it, was a source of great satisfaction for all of us. Unleashing some of our pent up creativity may be just what the doctor ordered to help us recapture the real reasons we got into healthcare in the first place.

I know the challenges we are facing in healthcare are many, are complex, and sometimes feel downright scary.  But if given the right set of new tools and the courage to make some little bets in healthcare, the whole truly could once again be greater than the sum of its parts.