Changing how we think: developing innovation through disciplined parameters

In April 2017, I had the privilege of Chairing the Child Australia bi-annual conference in Perth, Western Australia. One of the keynote presenters was Professor Jack Shonkoff, M.D., who is the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital; and Founding Director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

While he presented a number of topics, I was particular taken by his reference to changing 'How We Think'. In many ways, it all seemed so simple, but then again, that is the ability of a world expert such Professor Shonkoff, to unpack complexity and deliver clarity.

There are 3 agents of change which may contribute to how we form our thoughts:

  1. Science – different ways of thinking furthered through hard core scientific evidence
  2. Innovation – different ways of working at the point where research, practice and policy intersect; and
  3. Distributive leadership – through cross sectional or common knowledge, constructive dissatisfaction and best practice.

All of the behavioral research proposals and ensuing new programmes on offer since 1964 in the USA, have only contributed to a .25 impact effect size. Compared to pure medical research this is not very impressive at all.

If this is the case, then what is a possible way forward? In order to have a 'Breakthrough Impact', Shonkoff argues that we require a different level of thinking, and specifically, new approaches to the design, delivery and evaluation of programmes purporting to make a difference to the lives of children.

Most importantly we must critically analyse new programmes coming out of behavioral research, and not simply fall for their apparent marketing appeal. In doing this analysis we should ask some core questions such as:

  • What about the programme works? If we truly understand the ingredients of the programme, then we may be able to replicate it in other situations.
  • How does it work? Be specific about the underlying mechanics, as this can assist us to increase the impact of a programme.
  • For whom does it work and for whom does it not work? Do not simply assume generic success.
  • In what context, does it work? We can try to adapt programmes across varying contexts.

If we are seeking to innovate based on  behavioural research, then we have to understand that innovation is about co-creation and risk taking. In order to innovate successfully we require:

  1. Knowledge – science, practice, policy community
  2. Solution integration – seeking solutions for unmet needs
  3. Intervention developers –individuals who have a focus on improving outcomes
  4. Ready Teams and Location – including mindset, skills and leadership, engagement with the targeted population, clarity around the unmet needs and appropriately identified funding.

In essence, truly successful innovation requires greater precision and discipline in thinking and measurement. In order to be successful, we must establish a reason for change, an intervention plan, materials to support the change and establish a rigorous way of evaluating the plan.

Innovation, or change for change sake, is simply not good enough; in fact, it can harm, rather than improve the outcomes for children in our care.