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It’s time to innovate innovation

October 31, 2016 By: Shirlee Sharkey

Inventing a better mousetrap—is that innovation? 

New technology—is that innovation?

Redesigning a process for clients—is that innovation?

In the context of innovation within organizations, I think it’s time to admit that the word “innovation” is nearing the end of its lifespan. When everything is innovative, nothing is. Innovation is defined in myriad ways, but it is really a process, a mindset, a framework. It’s looking at your work in an entirely new way that allows new inputs and ideas to flow.

At Saint Elizabeth we spend a lot of time, energy and resources on innovation because we believe that it can help propel us to achieve new possibilities—and when we are able to do so in the health space, we all benefit.

There are many ways to define the word “innovation.” According to the Report of the Advisory Panel on Health Care Innovation, these definitions “underscore that innovation in healthcare should not be confused with invention in general or the creation of new technologies in particular. Innovation is instead an activity defined more by intent—the creation of economic and social value—than by form or process.”

We’ve embraced this approach and, to foster this kind of thinking, we’ve used a process of looking at both conditions and culture. If these two elements are aligned, then we’ve set the table for innovation to join us. When you bring these elements together, you build an innovation terrarium where you can simply sit back and watch it happen.


A cocoon is the perfect metaphor for the environmental conditions required for innovation to happen. A cocoon is a warm, safe and protected space that allows transformation to occur undisturbed. We cocooned the innovation function in the CEO office at Saint Elizabeth in order to keep an eye on its progress, protect it from predators and give it the extra TLC that’s needed until it can survive on its own.

A good example of this kind of a cocoon was the recent redesign of our office space. Our vision was to create a space where collaboration and cross-functional thinking would flourish, thus allowing new ideas to emerge organically. Leadership involvement helped shepherd those who had the vision to turn our workspace upside down and inside out. We were able to make it happen and avoid some of the pitfalls these types of projects often face.

Saint Elizabeth recently revamped its Corporate Office to foster greater innovation, collaboration and flexibility in our work environment. As part of this initiative, we created a 2000-square-foot showcase space to highlight our unique history, staff stories and innovation milestones.


Being committed to an innovative culture is easier said than done. I like to use the word “encouragement” when discussing the cultural requirements of innovations because it contains the word “courage” and that is what is needed, bravery. Because innovation is so much about being outside of your comfort zone, you need to be ensconced in a culture that is comfortable and supportive of the process of idea creation, solutions and impact. This is an important component, particularly when you consider that the vast majority of innovations fail. To keep creating, it takes a supportive environment that lives and breathes the process.

It’s certainly possible to keep innovation fresh and alive within organizations. I’ll leave you with a quote from Peter Drucker that speaks to the constant push and pull of our traditional thinking. I encourage each of you to think about how you can make a cultural difference by creating the right conditions.

“In times of change, the greatest danger is to act with yesterday’s logic.” —Peter Drucker

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Shirlee Sharkey is president and chief executive officer of Saint Elizabeth, a leading national health care organization known for its social innovation, strong financial performance and pioneering practices. As an award-winning and diversified not-for-profit, Saint Elizabeth delivers more than six million health care visits annually and employs 8,000 people providing nursing, rehabilitation, personal support, research and consulting services.

Health Startup Culture