How a former Target executive overhauled the innovation team at non-profit hospital chain Banner Health to push projects like a new emergency room chatbotOctober 15, 2020
- When long-time Target exec Christy Anderson joined Banner Health as the executive director of its innovation program, the team was divided based upon insurance type.
- She quickly reorganized the cohort into an internal innovation lab, an external venture arm, and a team dedicated to aligning goals to the overall business strategy.
- Anderson also figured out a budgeting strategy that enabled the unit to cover the early costs of implementing and scaling new projects, like a successful emergency room chatbot.
- "Doors were opened for and with us, we didn't have to pound a lot of them down," she told Business Insider.
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When long-time Target executive Christy Anderson left the retailer in spring 2017 to join non-profit hospital chain Banner Health as executive director of its innovation group, she quickly made some key changes that helped the unit flourish.
At the time, it was structured into three different cohorts based upon insurance type, including private providers and federal programs like Medicare. The framework didn't make sense to Anderson, because all the teams were developing applications that could serve a wide variety of patient needs, regardless of their insurance.
So she reorganized the department, keeping the basic framework of three distinct teams but changing the focus of each. She now oversees an internal innovation lab that aims to build products to solve problems within Banner and for its patients, a venture group that looks for external solutions to invest in, and a team focused on overhauling the organization's culture and aligning its IT goals with the overall business strategy.
This kind of transformation is an increasingly common one across corporate America as companies look to formalize and centralize their innovation efforts instead of managing a patchwork of bespoke initiatives that may only be catered to one specific business unit or customer base.
Alongside overhauling the team, Anderson also brought to Banner a retail-oriented mindset she learned during her 16 years at Target that helped lead to one of the group's biggest successes to-date.
Within both the internal lab and venture arm, she instructed employees to focused specifically on customer insights, with a mandate to figure out the key issues clients were experiencing. While such research is common in the retail industry, Anderson says it's less prevalent in health centers.
That feedback helped lead Anderson's team to focus on improving the emergency room experience: Often one of the first interactions a patient may have with the hospital. The unit developed a chatbot that, among other things, alerts users to how long they may need to wait between each step in the process.
The tool quickly came in handy during the COVID-19 crisis and functioned as something of a virtual waiting room to help manage the influx of patients coming through the door.
"We kept patients out of the hospital waiting rooms and they could wait in their cars when appropriate," said Anderson. "The technology in-and-of-itself was certainly not new, but the application in healthcare is where the innovation was happening."
How Anderson overcame challenges like budget constraints
Anderson attributes Banner's success in navigating what can be a very difficult overhaul to support from the top: namely, the organization's board of directors.
"Doors were opened for and with us, we didn't have to pound a lot of them down," she told Business Insider, something which unfortunately isn't always the case: "People say they want to do innovation, but when it comes time to actually do the work and execute, and think through it, it becomes the last priority."
Another key to Anderson's success was figuring out one of the trickiest challenges for corporate innovation teams: the budget.
It's not uncommon for business heads to jockey intensely for the limited dollars that the C-Suite is open to doling out each year. That can get even more difficult when the team in question is pursuing something as ambiguous as innovation — even when the unit has a mandate to pursue revenue-generating projects, as was the case at Banner. Some executives even label it the biggest problem facing programs designed to push legacy organizations to adopt next-generation technology.
After considering a range of options, Anderson settled on a solution under which her team would pay for the pilot stage out of its existing budget — which typically means the first year that projects are implemented and scaled across the company — but would receive funding once it had proven its success.
"At the end of the day, the last thing you want is money to get in the way of a business-driving innovation," said Anderson. "You wouldn't want a short-term funding conversation to get in the way of long-term revenue and margin driving opportunities."
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