Delivering differently in disruption: innovation, leadership and healthcare

As former chief strategy and innovation officer at Navicent Health where he helped found the Center for Disruption and Innovation, Christopher Cornue knows a thing or two about how to do things differently. He reveals which disruptors excite him, how to be innovative in healthcare and what leadership behaviours will be critical going forward 

About Christopher Cornue
Christopher Cornue has dedicated his life to advancing health for all. He has done this through multiple leadership, executive and collaborative roles that have focused on creating needed change within systems, communities and organisations. Currently, as president & principal of sláinte global partners (sgp), he leverages these experiences and a cultivated network of partners and change agents to further the best possible health outcomes for patients and communities globally.

Most recently, Christopher served as Navicent Health’s chief strategy and chief innovation officer, through which he led the system’s efforts to plan for the future and meet the organisation's mission, vision and values. At Sg2 he led the consulting practice, oversaw the Center for the Future, and served as a trusted advisor to healthcare organisations. He was CEO of McKee Medical Center in Colorado, where he led the organisation to strong financial performance and top decile performance in quality outcomes and patient satisfaction while creating an engaged workforce, and was vice president at Sinai Health System and has held several leadership roles at University of Chicago Medicine.

Edited transcript

Christopher Cornue: When I joined Navicent Health, which is now part of Atrium Health in the south east of the United States, I was the chief strategy officer. And when I spoke to our chief executive officer, I said, I think it's important for us to think about how we are doing things in an innovative way as well. And that's when she said, Chris, that makes perfect sense, so go ahead. And she made me also the chief innovation officer. So I had both roles, which I think is unique for healthcare – at least at that time. But I also think it's a very smart move on her part because you want to make sure your innovation is linked directly to your strategy.

And any type of strategy you create needs to be executed in a completely different way and that's where innovation allows you to do that. So early on we were looking to figure out what this would be and we were going to build this $50 million building. It was going to be a virtual center, where we were just bringing together people to be able to help us focus on some stuff.

So we designed the Center for Disruption and Innovation. And it was very deliberately named that way because we wanted people to understand this is not disruptive innovation by that definition. It is really focusing on disruption, which is the way we defined it 'any force internal or external that has the ability to fundamentally alter a business or clinical model'. And so that's anything that's possibly coming to us, but it's also our ability to be able to impact the way healthcare is delivered in a different way as well.

And then innovation, we did that specifically as those things that are able to create that disruption that is new, that's different, a new approach, etc. And that's the innovation piece.

When we started this, we wanted to be able to focus on a number of different things. First and foremost was looking at horizon scanning, which is the ability to be able to see what's going to be coming at you and then be able to respond.

The ability for us to be able to identify the right partners was important. We wanted to make sure that we were doing some research. So as an organisation – as people within the organisation – our biggest champions ended up being physicians, which really isn't a surprise but in some ways it is as well. They gravitated to this and they wanted us to help them think differently. So we wanted to do a research component.

We also wanted to make sure that we were focusing on startups. And so we know that we can't be creating everything around healthcare and all the different solutions that we need to have for the problems that we have in healthcare. So we wanted to make sure we were able to partner with others that had solutions and some wonderful partnerships happened as a result.

And then finally, we also wanted to think about how we can commercialise some of the work we were doing. And so that's how we started the CFDI. And then over the course of the two or three years, it ended up evolving, but that's how we started. And again, the express purpose is to make sure we're doing things differently and that we're being careful to make sure we're seeing what may come at us and we know how to respond to that.

There are a lot of disruptors on the horizon, of course. For me, I think artificial intelligence, I think virtual reality, I think that augmented reality – all those are going to be becoming even more impactful. Personally, for me, the things that I'm most excited about are the Omics, like the microbiome, looking at proteomics, the genomics, looking at all of those, because it gives a lens to your health in ways that we've never had before.

The other thing which I think we're starting to see actually hit now is workforce or workplace augmented stuff, such as technology that's coming in that's not replacing the workforce but complementing it and helping it to be better. Cognitive computing, for example, when you go ahead and you have the computer take a look at imaging scans, they can go ahead and take a look and recognise stuff maybe quicker than a radiologist.

And, I see this as being very positive, again, not to replace anybody but to complement them because we know that there's a shortage of healthcare providers that we're dealing with and in the future. So it's what if we can use cognitive computing in a way that allows our really well-trained and professional and intensely clinical physicians and clinicians and imaging physicians and radiologists to be able to do their job better because they have this as well. And I'm very excited about what that can be in the future too.

But then also we know that we need to be smarter about our work and there are ways that technology, whether it's through RPA or whether it's through bots, or it's through all the stuff we're hearing about now allows us to be much more efficient. That will help organisations to be able to reduce costs but also improve the outcomes that are going to take place.

The type of characteristics or leadership skills that I think are so important now but then also were very important when we launched the CFDI, are the ability to be able to influence, being collaborative, being able to be curious and then being able to not be so stuck in a hierarchical and traditional setting.

So there's a lot to unpack with those four and I'll give just a few other thoughts around each of those. Going back to the traditional and the hierarchical setting. I'm going to make some broad statements and I don't mean to do that. However, I think that the future leaders that we need around healthcare organisations, and quite frankly probably everywhere, is a different, more evolutionary leader that is not tied to just a higher, hierarchical top – down type of approach.

You need to have a leader that's able to, for the moment, be able to bring people together, identify what the possible solution the path forward is and then activate them and empower them to be able to make it happen. So that's that leadership that we had when we started this and then now I think it's even more critical in this era of COVID or pandemics.

That's one. The influence. I've always felt that, when we created the CFDI, part of the reason that we did that to where we didn't have a huge staff of a hundred people, it was just maybe three to four brilliant individuals that I was able to bring in. I was not brilliant. They were, they were the people that made this stuff happen but I impressed upon them to say, you need to be influencing behaviors of others. You need to be helping to influence their ability to think differently. You're not going to take the credit for this work. They need to take the credit for this work. So it's a physician that actually was our champion and they brought this and the Center for Disruption and Innovation brought this solution to them. We put the physician front and center and the CFDI was in the back. So we were influencers of change. That's what we were trying to do.

Collaboration goes without really defining that further, only because that was important back then but it's even more important now because I think for the first time, and I've thought through what's happened with health systems in this time of COVID, and I could be wrong with this, but I really feel that healthcare leaders for the first time have felt a loss of control. They're leaders that typically are able to respond quickly, they know what's going on, not so much that they have all the answers, but they know how to make things happen and to be able to move forward with things.

But I think the pandemic back in March and April, I think that was really where they started to recognise, wow, we don't know what to do and there's a lack of control. And that has generated into, or I think it's manifested to, a different type of leader that continues to take the organisations further because they need to be playing in this space to where it's a pandemic but they need to be getting their business back to normal as quickly as possible while also encouraging patients within the community to come back in. So I think that's a different type of role for an individual.

When, anybody is thinking about doing something different or bringing in a new innovation or a new solution to a current problem we have there's one statement I want to make, because I think it's incredibly important, in you can't just put new technology on top of a dysfunctional system because you'll still have a dysfunctional system. And so that needs to be really out front and people need to recognise that there's still work that needs to be done to address the problems in the processes, which is why when we develop the Center for Disruption and Innovation, our goal wasn't just on technology but it was care delivery innovation, it was other ways that we were going to go ahead and elevate what we can do around a care process. And that's very important. The technology helps with that, but it's not the end all be all. So I want to bring that up because I think that's very important.

The second thing is that when you're bringing in innovation, and there's this quote that I'm not going to be able to replicate, but there's this beautiful quote that I love from a chief strategy officer that I know: you have to help people get to the point of acceptance for this new innovation. And it's not quick. You've got to help them understand what that looks like. You've got to help understand what is going to be important to them. You've got to work hand in hand for them to be able to recognise that this makes sense. I'm okay doing this. My feedback has, and you can say this about anything, right, my feedback has been heard and I'm ready to go. I frequently say that you can push people to a cliff with doing something different, but if you push them off, you'll never get them back. And so there's a neat balance with taking them to a certain place to where they feel comfortable trying something different, but then also keeping them there with you and what you're trying to do as well.

And going back to the other piece of it is the communication. I think that when you start a new thing, like an innovation program, or bring in new technologies or new solutions, you have to be able to communicate both the obvious, but then also the not obvious impacts. So the residual or the other complementary impacts that this will end up having. And the communication that needs to take place from the leader of the organisation with this change throughout needs to be done in many different formats and it needs to be done frequently. I often see that sometimes when things don't get executed well, or when a new thing is put into place, it's the communication that is the biggest, biggest obstacle or the biggest thing that hasn't happened that allows for success to occur.

Published 2 December 2020
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