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Published on November 06, 2020

​Shooting for the Moon

A behind the scenes look at innovation at Cone Health.

For B.J. Sintay, PhD, executive director of radiation oncology and chief physicist, and the Cone Health Radiation Oncology Center for Innovation (ROCI) team, their human-centered approach to innovation is at the heart of Cone Health’s brand promise - We are right here with you. ​

​In this Q&A, Sintay takes us behind the scenes to see how he​ and his team approach innovation. 

​Who just “gets” innovation? What are they doing that you’d like to see Cone Health do?

Elon Musk immediately comes to mind. He doesn’t get stuck on what can’t be done. He’s fearless. After starting PayPal, he didn’t take the money he made and go and relax. Instead, he continues to take risks with ideas that are bigger than himself. With Tesla and SpaceX, he’s using innovation to first preserve the planet as much as possible and then form a strategy to get people off it. His dreams are massive.Dr. Sintay on Innovation


In health care, we are in the business of transforming lives - ultimately the health and wellbeing of our community. What bold dreams do we need to start acting on that will change our world? Massive dreams are inside of the Cone Health team. We need to listen to our hearts and then believe we can do it.
 

Where do innovation programs miss the mark?

People who struggle to be innovative are often constrained. They think of all the reasons something can’t be done. They let somebody or something get into the creative space in their head and pump the brakes. Fear of failure or perfectionism stops trying dead in its tracks. We need to start from a different place. We need to ask ourselves, “What is right? What do we believe we need to do? What is most important? What is no one addressing?”

Innovation is not necessarily a formula but a belief system. You need to believe your voice matters and believe in what you can do. You need to be willing to take small steps towards your radical, field-altering change. If you start to transform your team, you can transform your world.
 

How do you approach innovation?

Often, I first look for ways to innovate that may be less interesting. When I see lots of sticky notes in an office, that’s often a sign that something isn’t working well. I might ask, “What do you dislike about your work?” This might lead to innovating away a mundane task that not only improves the job and process but leads to something bigger.
 
More broadly, I listen and look around to identify pain points or where people are bored or frustrated. Workarounds are particularly interesting to discover, not necessarily bad. I also get a lot from listening to stories people share. I try to make an empathetic connection. This leads me into asking lots of questions.

What role does empathy play in successful innovation?

When we use empathy to learn what it feels like to be someon​e else and from that place, we emotionally connect to what they experience on a personal level, we can change our mindset. We can feel their pain points. We can understand that delays in a patient’s care mean they sit home worrying. We feel the fear of their first experience with a medical procedure. We become uncomfortable with their discomfort when we ask them to expose their body for a radiation treatment.
 
When we empathize – connect with them on a human level – we don’t want them to suffer. We want something more. Now, we are personally and emotionally invested. This is a deep well from where we can summon the resilience that innovation requires. It moves us beyond risk and doubt to the pursuit of what is possible.
 

How do organizations or departments get over their fear of failure to become more innovative?

We need to budget for failure. Talk about it as normal. Support each other in trying something that might fail. We need to ask our teammates to try again even if they feel rejected, tired, incapable or not had their idea embraced.  We need to trust our heart, trust our instincts. You can’t develop the perfect process on your first try. You cannot innovate without failure. Questions to ask about innovation
 

What traits do you look for in innovative team members?

I look for how people might fit into an innovative culture. Innovation is something this kind of person does their whole lives and not just at work. They are often obsessed with improvement of themselves and the things around them that they can control. They know it’s okay to not be perfect, and they know there is always room for improvement.
 
Also, I look for how they explore new ideas. Are they curious about people, the world, and most of all, about themselves? Do they encourage and provide alternative points of view? Do they explore the positions of others even when they go against their own?
 

How do you get other people behind your ideas?

People need to share a common purpose and vision for the future to collectively get behind something. A good idea has gravity – you can try to jump away, but you always come back to it. Good ideas capture people, develop a following and then, pull even more people in.
 
If an idea is authentic and noble enough, it resonates with people. Our brand promise – We are Right Here With You – feels right, and it’s natural. We should be “with” and “for” those we serve. It’s an idea we can all get behind. It’s exactly what we are doing when we use empathetic design to respond on a personal level to our patients. We are right there with them and inspired to make their lives better.
Now, all we have to do is take the next step.