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Harvesting all those great ideas

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In workplaces where ideas grow, there are many more ideas than time to harvest them.

If that’s not true in your shop, or if the ideas are not as tasty as they could be, check out CEO Philip Newbold, who, at age 60, champions innovation at a hospital in Indiana.

About eight years back, Newbold heard an analyst criticize hospitals for their old-school thinking. He decided to change a few things.

Now Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind., has its own teaching laboratory called the Innovation Café, making it the first community hospital in America with an R&D budget for innovation. Its board approved a budget of up to 1% of annual revenue for innovation. That equals about $4 million a year, and while the hospital actually spent only $711,000 on innovation in 2007, the jump in related operating profit ran up to three times the expense.

Newbold regularly visits medical products designers and other creative businesses, and has formed more than a dozen alliances with companies from Steelcase to Baxter International.

During 21-minute brainstorming sessions at the hospital, everyone stands so they’ll think on their feet. But by 2006, so many new ideas were flying around that the staff began suffering from “innovation fatigue,” so Newbold helped them prioritize their ideas.

Even failed ideas are rewarded. Newbold dishes out “good try” awards, such as four weeks of free housekeeping. He also invites staff to brief managers on lessons learned, and some flops get tossed into an electronic “cryo tank” where they may be resuscitated later.

New ideas keep Newbold’s job fresh after 21 years. He also runs, swims, bikes and competes in Ironman triathlons, which keep him in fighting shape for his “innovation marathon.”

— Adapted from “A CEO’s Recipe for Fresh Ideas,” Joann Lublin, The Wall Street Journal.

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