Thinking Outside the Box - How to Generate Ideas

We are constantly asked to do more with less. In the digital age, it’s more important than ever to be able to think outside the box. Here are some exercises to get the ideas flowing.

Thinking Outside the Box - How to Generate Ideas

Every day it seems like we are being asked to do more with less. Less money. Less time. Less resourcing. Less space... The healthcare industry seems particularly demanding. The increasing costs are unsustainable and the rate of chronic illness keeps climbing.  We are challenged to improve patient outcomes and become more efficient and effective at everything we do. Of course, while we are doing that, we need to make the patient and family experience better.

We need to think outside the box.

It’s not surprising that in the digital revolution, many are looking to information technology teams to assist. Thinking outside of the box is starting to become more mainstream. Ideas we may have considered to be preposterous 20 years ago now seem attainable. The perception of what is possible has evolved. Think back to 1999 … when many were worried about Y2K and all the havoc it could unleash on our computers. Now jump forward 20 years to today. We have robots assisting with surgical procedures. 3D printers are making FDA approved medications and artificial joints. Patients are scheduling their appointments from apps on their iPhones.

How do we get started?

Thinking outside the box isn’t as simple as it may sound... For many, the first hurdle will be to define what ‘box’ you are operating in, to begin with. To do this, it’s important to define the process, role, or workflow that is the target for idea generation. Document any assumptions that are in play. Consider cultural influences that may contribute to the way the process or activity is currently performed. Once you have done this, decide what the desired outcome is. Is the goal to complete the process faster? To improve a specific outcome measure? It is to improve the patient experience or patient communications?

It’s important to identify any relevant restrictions to be incorporated when generating ideas. While you don’t want to limit thinking - some hard parameters may need to be set. This includes things such as regulatory requirements, timeline or cost constraints. For example, if you need a solution implemented in six-months with no extra capital spend... Deploying robotic way-finding assistants may not be reasonable. Now, if you are looking for transformative ‘out of the box’ thinking - by all means, leave the restrictions off! It is always possible to deconstruct a grand idea and parse it into smaller pieces for an incremental change :)

Here are a few exercises to get the ideas flowing.

Generating out of the box ideas is something that will take practice. Some individuals may find it easier than others but it is a skill that one can improve upon over time. Idea generation can take place individually or within groups. For example, during brainstorming sessions or by using an ‘idea box’ approach. Here are four exercises to try to help trigger ideas.

1)  Remove a resource from the process.

One way to get ideas flowing is to start by identifying the key resources involved in a particular process flow. This includes human resources, physical equipment, and IT applications. Then consider the flow if you remove a resource. What is the impact on the process? Are there any negative implications? Are there adjustments that could be made to accommodate the loss? Can these remain compliant and effective? Now, repeat the process for other resources in the equation. Make sure to capture everything for further consideration - regardless of how abstract an idea may seem.

To further illustrate this method, think of the patient iPhone scheduling mentioned above. This is the result of an idea to eliminate the phone call patients would make to schedule a visit. In the original process, a scheduling resource would lookup available time slots in the system. By thinking of alternatives, that system is  now exposed in a patient-facing app.

2)  Check other industries.

One of the limiting factors we may face when trying to think of new process ideas is believing that the healthcare industry is wholly unique. There are many process flows and activities that are similar to other industries. Researching how things are done in the hospitality, retail, finance, or veterinary medicine space may be helpful. The details are likely to be different but some ideas translate well into healthcare.

Start by identifying similar/parallel processes that may exist in other industries. Review ways they are transforming processes to determine if efficiencies could be replicated. (Healthcare is frequently behind other industries when it comes to technical innovation. This is a great way to see if we can leverage ideas from others.) An example from the hospitality and service industry is the app-based food on-demand functionality. Many healthcare facilities have recently introduced a similar process to improve patient nutrition intake.

3)  Work backward.

When designing a new process, or working to change a current one, it’s not unusual to start from the beginning and work your way through to the end. The A to Z approach if you will. If you want to change it up a bit and see if some new ideas or concepts arise, try the Z to A approach instead. By starting with the desired outcome, and working backward it may be possible to identify redundant or duplicative steps. You may also find that the focus on cause and effect is enhanced since the thought process changes from ‘what comes next’ to ‘what caused this’. Amazon is one of the most well-known companies that use this technique. They begin the product development process by drafting the final press release and working backward from there.

4)  Change your perspective.

Perspective plays a big role in our thought process. When problem-solving or working to generate creative ideas, the position or lens we view a situation from may influence ideas. A great way to think outside the box is to change the perspective from which you view the situation. If you have been considering a process flow from the position of a clinician, consider things from the patient’s perspective. Does that spark any ideas? Several different industries use role-play and scenarios to trigger creative thinking. The same technique can be used in healthcare when trying to optimize a process or identify a potential transformation opportunity.

Regardless of how we generate ideas, thinking outside of the box is something that the digital age demands we continue to do. With the combination of so many intelligent people and advances in technology - the possibilities are endless.

“Telephone did not come into existence from the persistent improvement of the postcard.” ― Amit Kalantri