News  |  November 20, 2019

A recent article by Kate Sweetman and Shane Cragun titled How to Motivate a Movement conveyed a five-part strategy for transforming a business model. They began with an example of a political movement and stated how hard it was to apply to business. As I read the article, I began to see how this applied to public health. The Public Health Accreditation Board’s mission is to transform public health departments. With accreditation, the focus is usually on performance and improvement. However, innovation is also a pathway to transformation. The strategies list need to be applied within our public health departments to unleash the power that’s there.

Our standard government hierarchical structure is usually built on a top-down leadership model that favors restraint and certainty. While ‘that’s the way we do it here’ is a cliché, it’s also reality. And this reality is not just a barrier, it’s a competitor to innovation. I’ve known for a long time that public health people are filled with passion. We have passion for our departments, for our communities and for serving our people. Yet as Sweetman and Cragun point out, business as usual brings a full stop to “unquenchable passion and limitless drive”.

What inspires us in public health? What it is that we say we’re all about? We’ve grappled with this for decades, and yet we don’t seem to be any further along with a unified picture of what it is that guides us. Look at how we measure what we do. It’s usually with numbers. We provided 500 more immunizations this year than last. We inspected 89% of our restaurants in the last quarter. We have this many programs seeing this many people with this many dollars and this many staff. Setting a goal for next year of increasing a certain number of clients within a program isn’t very inspiring. Perhaps we should really examine the metrics we measure ourselves by and find out what motivates the passion found in the public health community.

When you think of your health department, what comes to mind? Is it the mission of the organization? Is it the program you work in? Is it your position? When someone asks you what you do, how do you answer? “I’m a public health nurse, a WIC clerk, a Food & Lodging Inspector or insert position title here.” Do you ever answer that you make your community a healthier place? Is your first response that you make your community a place where people can be healthy? It’s time to move beyond the budget that pays our salary to being ready to take on any challenge in our communities that a barrier to good health. To take public health outside the walls of the health department and engage everyone who can contribute to healthy lives.

This takes business as usual and turns it upside down. Let decisions be made at all levels of the organization. Truly collaborate both within and outside of the department. This may be scary and may mean you have to confront the prevailing mindset and culture of the organization. To me, that means getting rid of three statements. First is ‘That’s not the way we do it around here’. There is safety in the familiar. However, staying within those confines means no risk, no ideas considered and no innovation. Second is ‘That’s not my job’. Sorry, but it is. Your role is more than the tasks in your job description. It’s about coming up with ideas, testing them out, trying new things, doing something that you don’t normally do. It’s about collaborating with other programs or community members, about the department’s performance, not just yours. The third statement is ‘We don’t have the time or money or whatever other resource you want to add’. You can shut down any conversations looking at the what if with this statement. It’s really more of a ‘I don’t want to discuss it’ statement than a real reason. Always examine new possibilities, even those that won’t work.

Maybe we should have started with this strategy. According to various studies, anywhere from 70% to 90% of new ideas and innovation is stopped by leadership of an organization. An idea is rated as unworkable before even being considered. Now some ideas won’t be viable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore them. Maybe a better idea comes from that discussion. One practice of a transformed public health department is allowing employees the freedom, and safety, of trying new ideas and concepts, allowing failure, and building on that failure to create success. These organizations ditch the blame game and create a culture that nurtures something out of the ordinary. It’s allowing new approaches to old problems.

So how can you make innovation a daily to-do? Perhaps you can confront your business as usual and determine what’s keeping you from moving forward. Maybe free employees to be creative, to try new ideas and allow them to fail. Perhaps we need to reconsider our mindset and allow transformation to happen. . Only you can answer that question for yourself or your organization. PHNCI is here to help you understand innovation and how it is a necessary element of business. If you need some help, get in touch with us. Maybe you are already embracing innovation. If so, we would appreciate hearing your story. Contact us to learn more about being innovative as a part of your daily to-do’s.