Many will say that the first steps of a journey are often the hardest. Ask any innovation expert and they’ll agree, as did Maria Henderson, Chief Innovation Officer for WorkCare, Inc. an occupational healthcare company, when we spoke to her about her current initiatives. Maria is newly minted in her role and passionate about disrupting a market that hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years.
When we sat down with Maria, she was 20 years into the occupational health industry but only nine weeks into her new role as CIO, already wrapping up a response to a major RFP. We almost offered to reschedule our interview in order to give Maria a chance to breathe, but we were too excited to speak with her during this formative time for WorkCare. We were eager to learn about how Maria is instrumental in the development of an internal open-innovation culture designed to fill the role of forging new products and services – and ultimately revolutionize the occupational healthcare market.
The clinical services offered in the occupational health industry haven’t changed much over the years and are subject to an array of federal and state regulations. Current approaches focus on ensuring regulatory compliance and managing the risk of litigation, resulting in employees and their families struggling to navigate overly complex and ineffective health and disability systems.
Clinical innovation presents a unique array of challenges. The delivery model traditionally has a well-defined staff hierarchy, with physicians and nurses at the top. The model potentially includes the use of mid-level practitioners, athletic trainers, paramedics, medical assistants/technicians, physical therapists and behavioral health professionals. However, individuals on the front lines are taught to ensure they have sign-off from physicians, so it’s not natural for them to step outside of ingrained practice patterns and think about business or process innovation. Facing these challenges, Maria is dedicated to form a culture of open innovation, and in order to do so, is taking a dual approach.
Her first step was to schedule client interviews to do a deep dive, really talk to her clients in-depth and compile her learnings. By getting a call or meeting with these clients, Maria and her team can ask questions about their wants and needs, identify pain points, and work to draft ideas on new products that might meet these needs or heal their pain.
When Maria first started this initiative, a large employer sent out an RFP requesting new and innovative ideas, which her team was primed to give. If she needed a sign that she was doing the right thing, this was it, in bold neon letters. But Maria already knew that gaining customer insights is a vital step in the open innovation process. After all, if you are not informed by your customers’ needs, wants and pain points, you are innovating in the dark.
While pursuing this customer immersion tactic, Maria is also working to establish a culture of innovation within WorkCare, so that every employee feels empowered to submit ideas, feedback, and more. This sounds great, right? Implementing a culture of innovation often can be a lot harder than it sounds. One major challenge is your employees, who might not feel like they are able to participate (e.g. clinical hierarchy). Maria says she is encountering medical professionals who might not feel creative or that they are “idea people,” and customer service reps who don’t feel innovative or empowered. When we asked her how she is working to overcome challenges like these, Maria told us that she is working to explain open innovation as a process, and to show them how they fit into that process. This will help address both types of employees and their respective adoption resistance. The clinical or medical professionals will feel that their expertise can help play a key role in the innovation process, while those employees on the front line feel that they have a direct connection to decision makers and change agents like Maria and her team.
While only nine weeks into the process of forming an open innovation program in a clinical environment, Maria is making major headway. Her team has successfully responded to a major RFP, which would lead to the creation of their first new product. She has begun conducting client immersions and is gaining valuable insights from current customers, which helps inform the innovation process. All the while, she has been able to begin communicating the necessity for employee adoption and participation with the different teams within WorkCare. We are very excited to see what Maria Henderson, CIO for WorkCare, and her team will do over the coming months.