Innovation Profile: Jeffrey D. Frey
Jeffrey D. Frey is the director of digital experience at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Q | What would you consider to be your most successful innovation?
A | Building a culture of innovation. Though I could answer with a new technology for building nuclear submarines, an alert system for notifying administrators of their at-risk student populations or devices to enable and monitor chronic disease prevention…my ‘most successful innovation’ is how I have been able to help build a culture of innovation in the organizations I’ve had the privilege to be a part of.
A culture of innovation, in my mind, is the best innovation anyone can engage in because it well outlives a single application or widget. Innovation slowly gets embedded into the non-communicated values and subconscious behaviors of employees. In information technology, this at first requires deliberate actions like adding ‘innovation’ as part of a strategic plan and creating processes to deal with new ideas. It’s not easy, but I’ve repeatedly enabled the integration of innovation into the cultures of several IT organizations, while in parallel, organizing and maintaining a structured and productive environment.
The benefit is obvious. The innovative mindset takes hold and unique ideas proactively come from all over. These ideas were always there, but now they surface and the organization is set up to accept and enable them. For example, we’re currently innovating around our digital patient experience at MD Anderson. Once a broad overview of the vision was communicated, and a process for helping people articulate their ideas instituted, well thought out and executable concepts surfaced immediately…some of them I can genuinely say are new ways of thinking about how patients interact electronically with their cancer treatment.
Q | What spurred this innovation?
A | People: customers, team members and leaders.
For me, innovation is always inspired by people, who are ultimately the end users of any product. In my career, the best innovations come when I’m developing strategies and solutions that are focused on specific audiences, users or customers. Our patient audience is #1 at MD Anderson, so we’re very attentive to what they have to say and we seek out their input as much as possible.
I’ve also found that innovation is often spurred by a collaborative and dedicated team. Once a few ideas are successful in a small group or department, mindsets shift and people inside the organization start to really change the culture. A culture of innovation, once it stimulates solutions that make a major difference in the lives of everyone they touch, also motivates people to keep bringing new ideas to the table.
Further, it takes constant reinforcement from people in leadership to keep a culture of innovation alive and growing. Personally, I have seen my own leadership and communication style change over time to hopefully become a catalyst for innovation, encouraging and championing new ideas supported by established and new technologies.
Continuing my digital patient experience example, handing patients a personalized tablet when they walk through the MD Anderson door with forms, relevant education, care team biographies, event schedules, entertainment, maps and wayfinding came from directly asking patients how they wanted to interact with us. A team of employees and vendor partners take the ideas further. Leaders in the organization ultimately must support the innovations for any successful system-wide rollout.
Q | What are the unique benefits of that innovation that make it a valuable solution?
A | Time, resources and quality.
Without a culture of innovation, organizations typically have no tolerance for failure. Projects and initiatives must be planned in detail before being executed, and once started, so much investment has been made that the projects are hard to stop if need be. Innovative organizations embrace failing fast, spinning a pilot up and winding it down quickly, saving the organization valuable time.
We all know time is money, but money is just one of the resources that are saved by having a culture of innovation. So are employees. There are countless studies, statistics and books written on how innovative companies attract and retain the best talent.
Quality is also a by-product of building a culture of innovation because of a ‘try’ mentality. If incentivized the proper way, to test theories and make little adjustments before going all-in on something, when an idea is turned into a fully baked project it will most likely be the RIGHT solution. Quality rises out of the simple notion that a small try at the beginning of an idea can lead to a big impact at the end of a project.
Q | What resources were helpful to you when you were first starting out?
A | Other innovators.
Internally, a culture of innovation has to be encouraged at all levels of an organization if it’s to be successful. Though seemingly non-existent at times, I sought out relationships with like-minded individuals who were smarter and more innovative than me. Innovative minds feed off of other innovative minds, and entire cultures shift as more people become involved.
Externally, I would continually (and still to this day) put myself into the presence of innovators. You can learn so much from attending a futurist’s talk and discussing topics with other attendees around a dinner table afterward. When first starting out, I think it is important to make some phone calls, and maybe even lunch plans, with innovators that you admire.
Innovators are generally not satisfied unless they are making significant contributions in the area of their expertise. Most want to make a difference in a ‘big way.’ I, personally, seek out individuals who NOT ONLY want to ‘go big,’ but they also want to ‘do good.’ This is a compelling aspiration that eventually drove me to form a type of personal advisory board made up of folks who are happy to help think through innovations with me.
Q | What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs or innovators?
A | Here are my top 5 culture of innovation priorities:
1. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want on the cover of the newspaper: Don’t jeopardize your reputation, or the reputation of others, for the sake of innovation. In information technology, that means making sure customers are happy and hackers can’t get to data. No one wants to have his or her picture in the news because of something bad.
2. Keep the day-to-day running smoothly while experimenting: As you take time to innovate, make sure the current things that you’re doing don’t suffer. IT departments gauge this with downtime percentages of servers and systems. Individually, just consider those people and processes that rely on you and don’t neglect them.
3. Innovate: Do something new, or use existing methods, ideas or products in a new way.
4. Innovate: See priority 3.
5. Innovate: See priority 4.
Essentially, dedicate most of your time (3/5ths) to new ideas, but before doing so, make sure that you won’t be in the news and you keep the lights on. Fill your innovation time thinking and connecting with people you’re developing innovations for and with. Ultimately, this will then build a culture of innovation around you.