By Doug Schneider, Former CEO of Connecture

June 2018 – I spent much of my full-time professional career focused on innovation, and much of that time in healthcare information technology. To be sure, not every innovation effort was a success – indeed, the essence of innovation is about managing risk and if everything always worked it wouldn’t be called innovation. But enough of those innovations worked out that I made a career out of it, and in a few cases the innovations drove millions of dollars of revenue.  Every healthcare tech company that I worked for grew revenue when I was there, for which I’m very grateful because growing is a lot more fun than shrinking.

If I had to boil great innovation down to two things, they would be – one – well-conceived innovations and – two- having great product managers.

By well-conceived innovations I mean the following:

  • Innovations that create new sources of revenue – You can usually get your prioritized list of enhancements for your existing products by working with your customer base and, as important as that is, that’s not what I am talking about. Great innovations have to generate new revenue sources and open up new market territory. Great innovations must align with your strategy, but even more importantly they need to edge the business into new territory.
  • Innovations that can be rapidly tested- In my experience the best source of new innovation ideas is found from those working closest to the market – salespeople, product managers, engineers who talk to customers – rather than CEOs or other senior managers. Unless your CEO is Steve Jobs and – let me save you the time – he or she is not. Once you have a product concept and you are ready to “test it,” the best way to test it is through rapid interaction with the market – which must include actually asking a customer to pay (some) money for the first release. Senior executives are rightfully wary of funding the latest business case on paper; they’d much rather double-down on innovations where there is evidence of customer adoption.
  • Innovations that can be feasibly developed and delivered. The earlier you can get the key engineering and operations folks involved in early-stage innovation efforts, the better. This sounds easy but it will take some doing, especially in a sizable organization with many existing product lines. Great innovations only make it to market if you can get the “A players” involved.

I worked on many innovations in my career in healthcare IT – in areas such as inpatient EMRs, consumer engagement, and healthcare analytics to profile provider performance. I’m struck today by how many promising new technologies are on the horizon to enable new innovation opportunities in healthcare – artificial intelligence to support improved clinical decision making and help assess complex patient cases in real-time, etc.

But, as always, I think the critical constraint in exploiting these technologies will be having enough talented people to really bring the innovations to market – in a manner that actually improves the healthcare delivery system. The healthcare IT landscape is still littered with too many investments and products that didn’t get enough adoption especially by providers and consumers/patients – to whom, after all, the technology itself is a secondary concern to the issue of the patient actually getting appropriate care. This is where I am hopeful that the huge focus going into Product Design is going to pay off. Because, when you look at how our healthcare “system” in the US compares to other advanced economies, by nearly any measure, we need to do way better. And it will take great product design to enable all the promising technology to actually get used.

Which brings me to product managers, and the need for great ones. I spent a great deal of time leading and working with product managers, so I may be biased, but I basically believe that the value of any healthcare IT company is a direct function of how many really good product managers they have. And, I would add, making sure the product managers are actually focused on product management rather than having other functions – like project management – dumped into their laps.

At the end of the day, to get promising innovations to market someone needs to wake up every morning and worry about how to get the product concept all the way from an “idea” to something that you can reliably build, sell, and deliver. That’s what great product managers do.

Great product managers aren’t easy to find but, in my experience, they do have some common characteristics, the kinds of things that you can actually rigorously recruit and screen for:

  • They have passion for getting the right ideas to market and they understand that great products can make the world better.
  • They rely more on their influence skills than their need for authority to get things done. In other words, all else being equal, they have a good chance of convincing whomever they need to – executives, customers, engineers – that they are on the right track.
  • They can help create and deliver a vision that gets others enthusiastic and engaged.
  • They are flexible thinkers and comfortable with complexity and ambiguity.
  • They don’t need to know everything up front, because they are fast learners.
  • They don’t need all the credit when something works – in fact, they are more than willing to share the credit and they use that attribute to get others on board with the new innovation concept.

Wonderful things can happen when you combine well-conceived innovations with great product managers. For example, large customers funding your new product concept in exchange for discounted license fees.

One last thing – you need to measure the results of your innovation efforts. John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist, just published a book called Measure What Matters. Great companies measure what matters ruthlessly.

About the Author

Doug has significant experience as a senior executive in several healthcare technology companies and other software firms. From 2012 through 2015, Doug was CEO of Connecture, a leading provider of web-based healthcare shopping and enrollment solutions offered to consumers and employers through health plans, insurance brokers, and government agencies. Prior to Connecture, Doug spent 15 years (1995-2011) with Thomson Reuters healthcare analytics business – which was acquired by IBM in 2016 – spending the last 4 years as EVP of Innovation & Product Development.  While at Thomson Reuters, Doug led and catalyzed several product innovation teams in healthcare analytics and consumer engagement. He has an MBA from Stanford University and a BS in Systems Analysis from Miami University (Ohio).

Leave a Reply