LMP Focus Areas

The Secrets of Successful Innovation

Management expert and National Quality Conference speaker Andre Delbecq says it's "local knowledge"

When Andre Delbecq talks about innovation, you’d swear he was talking about unit-based teams at Kaiser Permanente.

A professor of management at Santa Clara University, Delbecq told participants at KP’s National Quality Conference the three keys to creating a culture of innovation—something that UBTs are working every day to create. They are: decentralization, a focus on the future, and unleashing the knowledge of the front lines.

“Do you ever wonder why organizations have their ‘visioning’ meetings offsite?” he asked. “It’s because the conference room in your building is covered with the bacteria and viruses of the present tense,” said Delbecq. He advises organizations that 12 percent of their budget should go toward innovation—that is, the future, not the present.

Decentralize to tap local knowledge

When it comes to coming up with new ideas, top leaders should rely on what Delbecq calls “local knowledge.” He’s studied top Silicon Valley high-tech and aerospace companies and found that innovation within these organizations is bottom up, with the best ideas often coming far from the corporate center.

“It’s the engineer or technician close to a need and to a problem, someone possessing local knowledge, who is the key,” said Delbecq. “An individual who has been working with a problem for some time, thinking about it, engaging in trial-and-error efforts: it’s those people in the heart of the organization who drive innovation.”

These are the people who “have a hunch,” he said. “They can’t explain it, they can’t give you 38 footnotes. But their gut says, ‘This needs to be done.’”  

The leaders of successful companies “have created organizations where people who are close to knowledge are the main innovators,” said Delbecq. Because no CEO can know every detail of a vast health care organization, “the actions that are necessary must be enabled in the unit and by the workers who are close to a particular set of challenges.”


An innovative culture is the opposite of one with multiple approval processes where ‘no’ can be said many times.

Andre Delbecq
Professor, Santa Clara University

Focus on the future

Top leaders and managers also have to create processes that support innovation. These steps, said Delbecq, involve articulating a vision of the future, exploring feasibility and testing new approaches, first with small groups who can help tweak them and then with larger groups. That sounds a lot like plan, do, study, act—part of the rapid improvement model that UBTs use to test their performance-improvement ideas at the front lines.  

“This sequence (articulating, exploring, testing) can be done by UBTs,” Delbecq said in an interview after his talk. “This can’t be managed by elites and bureaucrats. It is teaching all birds to fly.”   

Unleash frontline knowledge

In a recent article, Delbecq addressed an issue that vexes frontline teams and their managers: time pressure. “You have to give time resources to people at critical moments of innovation so they can really focus energy on the project,” he wrote. “We have to move away from seeing innovative work as something you do as an overload on top of all your present duties. In high-performing organizations, innovation represents a legitimate portion of the work role.”

Allocating time and resources helps create “a culture that supports innovation as an organizational priority,” he wrote. Unfortunately, he noted, innovation can be undermined by other attributes found in many large organizations: “Risk aversion, formalization, excessive review, and especially criticism directed toward those who encounter difficulties in the innovation journey.”

“An innovative culture is the opposite of one with multiple approval processes where ‘no’ can be said many times,” he told the conference. “The energy to innovate is already inside Kaiser Permanente. Our challenge is to give permission to the energy that exists.”  

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