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Priceline co-founder says relax and imagine to implant innovation in healthcare

"We're doing fine" are the three most dangerous words in business, according to entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman.

He's co-founded several companies, including Priceline.com, whose stock broke through the $1,000-per-share barrier last month. As you can probably guess, the company didn't get there just by being content with itself.

While it's often hard enough just getting through today in healthcare, in order to make care more efficient and effective, hospitals have to spend at least a little time thinking about tomorrow. Hoffman, who's now a co-founder and partner in digital branding firm ColorJar, gave doctors and nurses at University Hospitals in Cleveland a few tactics for innovation success at the their annual Pediatric Innovations Day on Thursday. Here were some of his suggestions:

"5-year-old days." Innovation requires people looking at the same things in a different way. A technique Hoffman calls "5-year-old-day," inspired by the curiosity of kids at that age, has resulted in rethinking countless outdated and inefficient processes in his own businesses.

Every so often, Hoffman said he asks employees to change their mindsets for a day and question everything that they do and everything that they use to do it. For example, his company used to print stacks of reports for customers, because that's just how they'd always done it. But when an employee questioned that, a few phone calls revealed that customers didn't actually use the reports. "We get so used to our surroundings that we walk by the same things every day but don't notice them at all," he said.

"Info sponging." Hoffman likes to spend the first 15 minutes of every day ignoring his cellphone and email and just learning. He surfs the web and reads about what's going on in the world and in other industries. "I go to Yahoo! and look at the top 10 searches to see what people - my customers - are thinking about and worried about," he said.

This is how he and his co-founders came up with the idea for Priceline.com. "Learn information about the rest of the world, shuffle around the puzzle pieces and figure out how you can apply it to your own industry," he said.

"No gravity." Most people think about innovation incrementally. In other words, they ask, how can I improve what we already have? "They look at the last 20 years of healthcare and say, I'm going to generate version 21.0," Hoffman said.

Instead, he encourages people to use their imaginations as if they were starting something brand new. Designing something from scratch and trying to "drag it down to reality" is much easier than trying to shove an old way of doing something up to something better.

What does the customer wants when he/she wakes up in the morning? Hoffman recounted a conversation he had with a music store owner back when he was running a media company. "I said, no one actually wants to buy a CD," he said. "They just want to hear a song right now." And that proved true when the iPod came around and revolutionized the music industry.

The same goes for healthcare. Nobody wants to go to the doctor's office, sit in the waiting room and then go pick up a prescription. People just want to feel better. Consider all of the possible ways to get them there.

Take off the white coat and go where the customers are. Patient satisfaction surveys can only tell so much. Where the real conversation about what patients find inefficient, annoying and challenging happens in places like the waiting room, Hoffman observed. "Some day, take off your white coat and go sit in the lobby," he suggested. "Pretend you don't work here and just listen."

Experiment. Whirlpool, the company that makes your household appliances, is one of the most innovative in the world, Hoffman said. It's gotten there by making innovation a system that involves everyone in the company, not a one-time event restricted to engineers or top company leaders. Employees bring observations about customers, competitors and technology to idea meetings where they're smashed together with other observations. When observations turn into promising ideas, they're assigned resources, and personnel are given time to develop the project. The majority of projects end up shelved, but they feed new ideas and generate valuable insight about what does and doesn't work.

Despite how demanding working in a healthcare environment can be, giving 100 percent to today's business and 0 percent to tomorrow's just doesn't make a sustainable business, he said. "Even 95 percent and 5 percent is better."

[Photo by - soukup]

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