How to innovate and avoid problem-solving traps: Philips’ innovation chief Shez Partovi

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linda Lacina, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum


  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Shez Partovi is a former physician turned tech exec whose early career helping patients taught him critical lessons about seeking innovative solutions to tough problems.
  • The innovation chief takes us through the questions that ensure you’re considering the right evidence, setting the right priorities and truly pushing innovation forward.

‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ This phrase is common in workplaces but might be hampering real innovation.

Shez Partovi understands this well. Today he’s the Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer for Royal Philips, a health technology company. But for 10 years, he was a practicing physician. Those early years taught him the importance of investing more in a problem than in a solution. This approach helps sidestep new bells and whistles that may seem exciting, but don’t lead to progress or tackle a lasting problem. “It’s critical to focus more on the problem than the tool you’ll build to solve it.”

Working in medicine drove home how to focus on what’s really important, Partovi says. For instance, in one hospital ‘tumour board’ session, Partovi remembered a surgeon cutting through the debate among the physicians in the room by asking, “What would we do if the patient was lying here on the table? What would we do if her family was sitting here?”

The impact of that question blew Partovi’s mind. Immediately the focus shifted away from anything not specifically relevant to that patient. “The personalization of that story meant that the care became more obvious as to what’s the path to take. And what I learned that day was focusing on the patient as a unifying force.”

Considering a patient’s need first, and moving backward from that “ground truth,” ensured that priorities were always in the right place. This ground truth applies to any innovation, as problem solvers must truly understand a user’s full experience and journey. In fact, Partovi always suggests asking R&D teams ‘When was the last time you actually spoke with the intended end-user and sat with them?.’

“There is no substitute for the voice of the customer,” he says.

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Leaders looking to truly innovate can ask themselves a range of questions to stay on track and avoid falling into traps that can slow progress. They include:

1. What’s my evidence?
Partovi says there are three ‘E’s’ that can drive innovation: Evidence, expertise and eminence. A person’s background (expertise) or role (eminence) should not outweigh evidence in drawing a conclusion.

Partovi discusses on the podcast a mistake he made the second day after he’d graduated from medical school. There was more he could learn, even as an M.D. and the experience reminds him that rank can hold good problem-solving back.

2. What surprised me?
Surprise is a sign that you’ve learned something new. If nothing about your discovery process changed your mind or re-steered you in any way, chances are you’ve only confirmed existing beliefs, not created an innovative solution.

“If you don’t ask the disconfirming question,” says Partovi, “and if you don’t encourage the disconfirming question, you’re not going to learn anything.”

3. Do I really understand my users and their experience?
The best conclusions will be anchored in details that show a close understanding of people most directly impacted by a problem — their user experience and journey.

Meet the Leader caught up with Partovi at the Annual Meeting in Davos in May where he explained more about his approach to innovation and speaks in depth on the questions leaders should ask themselves to truly push innovation forward. Read the transcript below.


TRANSCRIPT

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What’s an early lesson that helped you ensure that every innovative solution is solving a real problem?

Shez Partovi: When I was a medical student, we had just started rotating through a hospital and there’s a thing in the hospitals called tumour board. Tumour board is when all the physicians get together to discuss a particularly difficult case where the answer isn’t obvious.

And so as a medical student I’m sitting against the wall. The surgeon, the oncologist, all the physicians are sitting discussing this particular woman. And if you’ve ever been in tumour board, the oncologist will make approach that says “we should radiate,” or give chemotherapy. The surgeon says we should cut it out. Each will bring evidence, because remember this case is unknown. It’s not a slam-dunk.

And there’s a lot of debate going back and forth. And I remember the head surgeon for the hospital at one point said: “Ok, what would we do if the patient was lying here on the table? What would we do if her family was sitting here?” And as a medical student, I was blown away by the impact of that question, because what happened is everybody switched from “my specialty, and I think we should do this and here’s my evidence” to: “Well, this patient is actually going to have- their daughter’s going to get married.”

And then all kinds of things came out. The personalization of that story meant that the care became more obvious as to what’s the path to take. And what I learned that day was focusing on the patient as a unifying force. I learned that really on the clinical side. And so when I shifted to the technology side, I took that lesson with me and used that, focusing on something external. Because in technology, the hardware says solve the hardware, software says solve the software. You know, the designer says, “here’s the best way.” But it’s a great unifying force to focus on the patient and work backwards from his or her needs, and to personalize whatever it is you’re building.

Wanting to disconfirm beliefs is the prerequisite to innovation and strategy.”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

That to me has been an area of change that I’ve focused on. Whether I was in a health system as chief digital officer, whether I was at Amazon and AWS and now at Philips, it’s always starting from the patient journey and working backwards.

We can talk about a specific example in technology that we actually did this, but that’s really the change I focused on and what I’ve been committing my time to.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Let’s talk about a particular technology that will really surprise people with the impact. What’s something that comes to mind?

Shez Partovi: So, we had a real problem when I was at a health system. I was working at the fourth largest health system in the United States. I was Chief Digital Officer. And the problem we were trying to solve sounds trivial, but bear with me here. Walk with me on this one.

So, it’s about patient online scheduling. Now of course today after pandemic with all the vaccines, scheduling is big on par for the course, but this is a few years back where patient online scheduling wasn’t necessarily a thing. Or at least there wasn’t a common thing. It was a thing. And so, when we looked at that it seems simple.

You know, there’s a thing called patient portals and everyone said: “great, let’s roll out the patient portal and we will let patients schedule their visits online.”

And so the question became: well, patient portals only work if you’ve actually been at the hospital and have an account. So, what happens to patients that have not yet come in to the clinic or the hospital?

They actually don’t have accounts. This would be as though — I don’t know if you’re in the U.S. — there’s an app, OpenTable. So it would be as though you could only book at restaurants you’ve been to, and that would not be a very useful app. And so, the question of how do we allow our patients that have never touched our environment to schedule online was a problem that was worth solving, because otherwise you’re, first of all, excluding a whole lot of patients that have not yet come in. And so, we focused on that problem and actually the way I think of it, is we invested in the problem, not the solution. The solution was the portal. But the problem was all our patients and how will they be able to schedule online?

Diving really deep into that problem led to a certain number of technology decisions which actually meant that we cannot just use the portal. And then as you wind the scope, we had video visits as a problem. We wanted the online scheduling to be applied to that. We had, birthing classes, Lamaze classes.

As you looked at it from the patient lens, they had a whole lot of digital services and they’d like to schedule online. The answer of beginning with the technology of, we have a portal, let’s just roll that out to saying what’s the actual patient journey and what does he or she need, meant that we had a cascade of effects that meant literally dozens of platforms in this health system, which was 40 hospitals across dozens of states, everybody had to align to this one story, which is how do I let somebody access a digital service where they have not yet come into a facility.

And the cascading effect of that, actually, if you fast forward, that particular health system did remarkably well during the pandemic, because we had — before I left that organization — we had actually already built the infrastructure for allowing anybody to actually schedule and book an appointment, whether it’s for birthing classes or whether it was for a preoperative schedule, a preoperative visit, pre-admission testing, it’s called.

That’s an example where we dive deep, really into the problem space, and when we started, everybody said: “look, it’s easy just to have a bunch of apps. It’s okay. A bunch of different username, passwords, you know, check lots of apps on the app store.”

We live in a world where we tell people don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. Innovation is the opposite. Bring me problems before you set on the solution. Let’s invest in the problem.”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

When we were having this discussion, I borrowed from the example when I was a medical student, which is, look, if it’s your mother, your son, your brother, or sister, what is the experience they want to have? And that was a unifying force.

And so, using the patient as a way to bring folks together on a common mission and vision has been something that I’ve been using to solve technology problems – clinicians are used to solving patient care problems all the time – I’m just transplanting that experience to the technology side.

We all either know a patient, have been a patient or will soon know a patient. And so it’s an incredible way to bring people together around a particular vision. So, I’ve been using that and it’s natural for me because just of my clinical background and that example I’ve used, whether I was at Amazon, AWS, whether I was at Philips, working backward from the patient experience or the clinician experience — I mean know I use them interchangeably, they’re not the same persona — but equally physicians and nurses, they deserve the same sort of obsession over their experience. So that’s the example of using that to drive a technologic development that required 40 hospitals to collaborate on a single vision: that we want to allow patients to be able to access digital services wherever they are, even if they’ve never been to our facilities yet.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You’re new at Philips, but what problems will you be investing in?

Shez Partovi: When I arrived at Philips, one of the things I borrowed was that concept of patient centricity and when I arrived, there was an innovation transformation program, which was called Innovation 2025.

I am a firm believer that words matter. And so, one of the leadership asks at Philips is this concept of customer first, which really translates to consumer first, patient first, really, it’s the grab bag term. So, one of the first things I did is I said, “words matter, and it’s not about Innovation 2025, which sounds like we can do this later, but we need to change that term to customer-first innovation.”

So, the first thing I did is actually said: “Let’s say the right things. We, if we’re going to innovate, we need to innovate on behalf of our customers, consumers and their patients.” That was an immediate switch that we did.

Now taking that forward we have, in our ambulatory team for example, have technology like BioTel. BioTel is a way of monitoring cardiac rhythms at home to make a diagnosis, whether a patient has an arrhythmia of some sort or even monitoring in real time to have a trigger that says there’s a dangerous arrhythmia happening. And so now it comes the same story. So, you’re talking about giving a patient, a device that they have to actually attach and configure.

We need to obsess over that experience. Amazon talks about experiences being the pivotal part of a flywheel. When you want to create a flywheel to grow a business, you obsess over experiences. I combined that with my personal experience as a medical student, as an intern, as a resident, as a fellow, of how the patient journey really brings clinicians together and here at Philips now taking those together.

The business scaling experience at Amazon, the passion to really take care of patients from my physician background, to Philips, where we say: look, whatever we are putting in the hands of patients, whether it’s our BioTel technology, whether it’s our sensors that we give, it has to obsess over the simplicity, beauty and simplicity for the patient to be able to absorb it. Which actually is why we have like 500 designers, who all they do is focus on the patient journey and think through how do we make it so that the technology is invisible, seamless, easy. We have a whole personal health team that all they do is focus on consumers, the consumer and personal health journey.

“We have to innovate on behalf of our customers. We’re not coming to innovate for them, but on behalf of them.” ”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

That’s the story that I’m bringing to Philips: A — words matter. Shift your thinking to customer first innovation. We have to innovate on behalf of our customers. We’re not coming to innovate for them, but on behalf of them. B — obsess over the patient experience. Obsess over the clinician experience, because that’s how you create a flywheel.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How did your experience in medicine help you in this switch to technology?

Shez Partovi: The process to innovate is interesting. At Philips we have a process called co-creation, where, as you pointed out, because it’s a multidisciplinary team to really innovate on behalf of customers.

We actually collaborate together with customers and actually go onsite and do this co-creation process, which allows us to deeply understand both the clinician journey and the patient journey, and to work backwards from that to actually figure out what is the best. And in that process, you have people from our health transformation services, which are experts in workflow, we have designers that literally are designing software and hardware. There are our key leaders internally, the research and development team. So, we bring everybody onsite, and work in this co-creation process. That’s how Philips — and by the way, that ties directly into the mode of thinking which I was just sharing around being focused on the experience and working back from that outcome – that’s the co-creation process.

Now, and this is well known, Amazon’s process is well known. Amazon called this working backwards, and it’s working from, in that case the customer and not necessarily the patient, because on Amazon Care there’s no patient involvement, but working backwards from a problem. The challenge that I have seen often in any of these processes, and I categorize them into three Es — they start with a word that begin with the letter E.

I’m a firm believer in what might be called evidence-based innovation. Now I borrowed that from evidence-based medicine. So, you will see me always crossing my clinical and my technology worlds together. So, [what] evidence-based innovation really says to me is listen to the signals. What is the pain point?

Focus on those actual signals, whether it’s from a patient or clinician, and look at the market trends. And you’re really starting from the ground truth and then working backwards from that ground truth. So, evidence-based innovation. I talk of a ground truth because you know, I will jokingly say the truth will set you free, but first it’ll piss you off.

So, you have to start from the ground truth, the evidence-base. The problem with any innovation process is there are two other Es that you fall into that trap. One is expert-based innovation, where you bring key opinion leaders into a room and the actual ground truth isn’t there, it’s a proxy.

So, Philips for example, on staff you have a ex-cardiologist — and “Let’s just talk to the cardiologist. She knows what we should do.” That’s a trap that one can fall into and which I’m actually actively working to avoid and to make sure that Philips stays customer-first innovation.

Expert based innovation — it’s comfortable: “hey, you’re a physician. What do you think?” And you have to have discipline not to fall into the trap of expert-based innovation. But it’s still not as bad as the last E, which is eminence-based innovation. Which is, you’re an eminent person: “I am the Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer. Hear me, hear me.”

Now of course, sometimes individuals who are “eminent” really base it based on evidence, they’re translating — but let’s put that aside because that’s just evidence couched as eminence. But the trap we do fall into sometimes is this eminence-based where you’re looking for the highest-ranking title in the room or in the organization — “you tell us what we should do, what does the customer need?”

And so, what we constantly are making sure we don’t do by sort of disconfirming our beliefs is [asking] are we really at the evidence? Are we just leveraging experts or are we falling in the trap of eminence? And it’s the eminence one that you precisely deploy the wrong thing.

And it’s the one that is really the ground truth level that you are able to navigate to really innovation that’s that for a clinician, a physician, nurse, or patient. We combine, at Philips, and this is my role, at the heart of it, is to ensure that we are doing customer first-innovation based on ground truth of the pain point of whoever it is we’re trying to serve, whether it’s a consumer, a health system, physician, nurse or sometimes the patient themselves. That is the challenge that I constantly face. That’s the headwind I work and I’m every day waking up saying, “have I fallen into that trap, have our teams fallen into that trap? Are we just going based on proxies? Do we know the ground truth?”

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You said it takes discipline to make sure that you’re not falling into expert-based innovation or even eminence-based. Are there questions people can ask themselves to get them on the right track?

Shez Partovi: When I came to Philips one of the first questions I asked to our R&D teams and teams was: “Hey, when was the last time you were with a customer?”

You want no filter between you and the voice of the end user, whether that’s the consumer, whether that’s a physician, nurse, patient. So, there is no substitute for the voice of the customer. And so, I would say that if anyone listening, any of your listeners, has a research or innovation team, they should just walk in and ask: “when was the last time you actually spoke with the intended end user and sat with them?” Which is partly why Philips does this co-creation, because you’re actually in that fishbowl with them. And so that there’s no question.

There are two dimensions to that voice of the customer. There is the qualitative and quantitative, because you get qualitative signals, and you really should — in an agile way, try to build towards whatever it is you’re innovating on their behalf — use quantitative and analytics to validate your direction. So, it isn’t just gut intuition: “hey, I talked to Dr. Jones. She was at that hospital. She said, this is the best thing since sliced bread.” Okay, great — voice of the customer. But you need to then go to a quantitative level and validate that. So, I challenged our teams at Philips to voice the customer qualitative validated through quantitative as well. And no substitute to that. Yes, we’ve got key opinion leaders. Yes, we have brilliant individuals who’ve been in the field for a long time and who are great voices, eminent voices — but no substitute for the ground truth voice of the customer.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Do you think that more people should think about that phrase that you used: invest in the problem, not in the solution.

You’re not working worrying about the output so much as you are actually doing something that makes progress. Do you think that that there’s a gap to be bridged there?

Shez Partovi If I told you to finish this sentence, I think you probably could, right: don’t bring me problems, bring me-

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Solutions.

Shez Partovi: Right. And I’m not that person. That’s the challenge. We live in a world where we tell people don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. That’s probably the most commonly quoted management- “come up with solutions, don’t bring me problems.”

Innovation is the opposite. Bring me problems before you set on the solution. Let’s invest in the problem.

So, the process really is diving deep into the problems, whether it’s your Kaizen, whether it’s the five Ys, whatever and until you completely understand the problem, absolutely not moving into solution mode. So, it is difficult. You get three people in a room. The first thing they do is go up to a whiteboard and start solutioning. And it takes discipline, real discipline to dis-confirm your beliefs. So, definitely invest in problems. There’s another great quote: “If I had an hour, I spend 55 minutes on the problem” — those should become your cultural norms.

So, I would say if anyone has an innovation team, those are the metrics that you should actually use — how much do you focus on the problem and not the solution. I was willing to wager with any of your listeners that, if they do that, invariably, the solution will different than what they first thought in the first five minutes.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is another question people should ask themselves: have I been surprised by anything?

Shez Partovi: If you haven’t changed your mind a lot, then you may be on the wrong path as well. There’s the iteration and that comes to the agility, maybe that’s the other dimension to innovation. And this idea of focusing on the problem is that you really want to focus on agile iteration and trying things.

You should have some level of uncertainty, because you’re really trying to be innovative. I mean, the foundation of innovation is if you already know the answer, then you’re really not innovating. So there’s a level of uncertainty that you’re comfortable with, that you’re going to experiment in an agile way and that you’re going to change your mind.

“If you already know the answer, then you’re really not innovating.” ”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

You’re right. In a way that if you look at it and at the process of innovation, and in the first 10 minutes, you have the answer, you’ve got a roadmap, you create three horizons and off you go, you may end up in the third horizon — exactly the wrong place. So definitely it is agile. It is iterative. It is learning and disconfirming your belief. Those are foundational to disconfirming one’s belief.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How have you changed from your earliest days as a medical student or as a doctor, how have you changed in your mind as a leader? What capabilities have you built on? What things have you left behind?

Shez Partovi: Probably the most profound experience in medical school for me was from a nurse. I had just graduated, so I had an MD next to my name. I was eminent — or at least it felt that way. And one of the patients required anti-coagulation and I was actually ordering testing for anti-coagulation. And if the testing isn’t done right, the dosing isn’t done right. That’s really important for those that know.

On day two in the real world, I was writing orders for a patient. So, I wrote the orders, flagged it for the nurse to follow my orders and left the floor. And that particular nurse on that patient looked at my order realized the order was actually wrong. It was not the right test for the patient and it wouldn’t have given the answer. It would have delayed anti-coagulation therapy. And so she escalated to the Chief of Staff, saying a couple of things. One, this ‘physician’ quote unquote, just graduated. He needs a little mediation course on proper testing for anti-coagulation. And B, let’s get the right order for this.

I’ve never forgotten that because — as you said — what has that taught me? That you never stop learning. And that if you walk out of somewhere thinking that you are at that point- that “I have achieved my MD status, hear me hear me. This is my order.” She very eloquently, and very quickly on day two of my MD-ness reminded me that the education has just begun. I’m not done medical school, I’ve begun a lifelong process of learning. That humble posture of learning, she drove that to me that day. Obviously, she casually — we got to the right test, did everything right.

But it was this really quick post-graduation reminder that I need to learn. I need to continue to learn. So, building capabilities and learning is one of the things that has been foundational since the second day that I graduated medical school. And for me, the reason that was really important is because when, as I went forward in my career, I realized that my passion wasn’t — so I was doing angiography. When you’re doing angiography, and if you fast forward a few years after that, I was seeing about five patients a day. I was doing brain angiography, cerebral angiography. I loved that job, that work, and it was very rewarding. But what I wanted to do was to make an impact at scale. And after 10 years of practice, I realized that if I want to impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people, was (as much as I love what I’m doing and it gave me great satisfaction) I needed to do something different. Actually, it wasn’t 10 years, it was earlier than 10 years. And so borrowing on that learning, on that moment, for me, learning has just begun. I had to figure out, do I go passion backward, to use the same metaphor, or skill forward?

“I had to figure out, do I go passion backward, to use the same metaphor, or skill forward?” ”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

My skill was a physician, but my passion was scaling and making a difference in the world, so I had to figure out, okay, I’ve got to start learning other things. So, I started learning computer science. I took extra courses at night. Basically get a real life MBA versus going to MBA school, because I was still practicing. During the 10 years, I practiced at five start-ups. One was a spectacular failure. I learned a lot. And the other ones I learned. I was doing product management. I was, quote, CEO. I was doing marketing. So, this constant posture of learning was the only way in which I could get to my goal, which was to deliver care at scale or make impact at scale. So that is the heart of everything that I now do. If I learned something in a day, it’s a good day. Which comes to your disconfirming of your beliefs. Because if you believe you know it all, you don’t want to disconfirm your beliefs, but literally the goal — and I work on my own leaders that are in my team to always do that as well — which is, if you don’t ask the disconfirming question, and if you don’t encourage the disconfirming question, you’re not going to learn anything.

“Seeking questions is the prerequisite to innovation and strategy.” ”— Shez Partovi, Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer, Royal Philips

And if you’re not going to learn anything, your innovation or wherever you’re going is going to be misguided. And so, this concept of humble posture of learning, wanting to disconfirm beliefs, seeking questions is, in my opinion, the prerequisite to innovation and strategy actually, because they’re twins in a way.

So that’s, that’s the background that led me to this, to the way that I operate in the way in which my teams operate.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a book that you recommend?

Shez Partovi: So my favourite book, well, I have many favourites, but this one, in the context of being a change agent, in the context of making people realize that focusing on experiences and centricity — Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas [Survive] and Some Ideas Die.

The Heath brothers wrote that book, and Made the Stick is around the power of simple communication, because you want ideas to stick. And so if you’re a change agent, which I believe part of my job, a big part of my job, is to be a change, and my teams is knowing how to communicate so things stick is critical.

You know, the great quote is “the problem with communicating is you think you’ve done it.” And so, to overcome that, I use the techniques in that book all the time. Made to Stick — it’s got an acronym which maps to a certain sort of approach. So, I use that concept and I recommend it to all the teams to read it because being a change agent means you have to make ideas stick. So that’s my favourite book.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: If you were going to give advice to young people today who were looking to scale their passions, what’s that advice?

Shez Partovi: So, my advice to young individuals who want to scale their passion is to be stubborn on the vision and flexible on the details, because there are many paths to achieving your passion. Don’t get locked in early on a path that you think is the path. Stay true to the North Star, but be flexible in the ways, iterate and try different things and experiment, experiment, experiment. That is how you find the path to your passion and you can scale it.

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