Sustaining innovation requires strong links to core business

6 years ago
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Keep solutions anchored to customers’ needs to maintain structure, discipline and longevity.

There’s a lot of talk these days about innovation in Australia. Start-ups, incubators, labs, human-centered design, prototypes are just some of the topics, and the list goes on. At Uniting—which provides community services to Australians of all ages—we face the ongoing challenge of how to best respond to the many changes in the aged sector. It can be difficult to demystify innovation, and decide what to actually ‘do’ about it. I wanted to share my perspective on this topic.

The first point I’d make is that it is very important to get this right, because innovation is critical for the aged care sector in this country. Some of the models in the marketplace today are neither desirable nor sustainable for the long term. Suitability and desirability are driven by the changing needs and preferences of Baby Boomers as they move into retirement. Sustainability rests on the conflict between exponential increases in people needing aged care services compared with a smaller number of taxpayers. These trends create an innovation mandate.

I’d like to offer three practical tips to drive innovation in your aged care organisation.

Choose the right type of innovation for the solution you need

There are three innovation types and each is suitable for a different business problem.

  • Sustain and improve: Aged care is a heavily regulated sector in which compliance and risk mitigation become strong aspects of an organisation’s culture. This strong focus on quality and continuous improvement is itself a form of innovation that is incremental and an important organisational foundation. At Uniting, we invest heavily in a team dedicated to improving our practise and quality. The team provides proactive leadership and development in response to feedback, complaints and incidents.
  • Add and subtract: This happens a lot in Australia because we’re a small market without the investment pools
    you’ll find in the United States of America and Europe. Subsequently we have become effective at identifying great models internationally and adopting and adapting them for our local market. Being early adopters of innovation has real benefits, but does require deliberate and intentional work in adaptation. At Uniting, we have explored this through the development of our ‘Inspired Care’ transformation program which puts our customers at the heart of our work. A good example of this is how we are rolling out the ‘Household Model’ in our residential aged care facilities.
  • Disrupt and transform: Recent government reforms encouraging competition and consumer-directed funding may foster disruptive innovation in the aged sector in Australia. Although we have yet to see strong evidence
    of this type of innovation, there are already some new models emerging through start-ups which will harness new technology platforms.
Ensure necessity is the mother of your innovation

Far too much work in innovation gets commissioned without a clear social or commercial mandate, making unsustainable. Innovation can be costly. It takes time and will ultimately mean you have to make tough choices that will challenge the status quo in your organisation. Without a clear ‘why’ these challenges make it hard to sustain your innovation, so ensure you’re prepared and can make the link to your core business.

The framework in the diagram (over page) provides a helpful way to think about your business activities and the way you can innovate and allocate resources.

  • Core: There are opportunities to innovate from your core business for existing customers and products. This should be the overall priority for your innovation agenda.
  • Adjacencies: By extending the services on offer, and expanding existing services into new markets, you will be able to explore more opportunities for innovation.
  • Transformational: This final quadrant for innovation is the most difficult for organisations to explore, but in an era of disruption it’s best to be on the front foot.
‘Doing’ innovation requires structure and discipline

Before we explore the process for innovation, let’s start with the biggest risk: you. The biggest challenge for innovation is people with preconceived solutions. The best place to start is with a problem; and even better if it’s one that a customer has identified. The best innovations are anchored in a customer’s needs, with potential solutions developed with customers

by digging deep into the assumptions that sit behind these ideas. What this tells us is that innovation is not a free creative process, but one that requires structure and discipline.

The other perennial question about innovation is how you structure it within your organisation. In other words, do you embed it within your frontline services, or do you create a centralised function? The reality is that either model can work if you acknowledge that innovation, excluding continuous improvement, will likely require a different type of skills from your business-as-usual activities. It will also require some dedicated focus.

This can be done by creating cross-functional teams, dedicated units with operational leads, or external partnership with universities, or small start-ups. Other specialist organisations, such as the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, can also provide assistance. The centre has partnered with many organisations on their innovation in ageing initiatives and focus on ‘redesigning ageing’ by undertaking groundbreaking research into the role of home for older people. It has also developed an open source model of carer support called Weavers.

Doug Taylor is Group Executive at Uniting. For more information visit