Podcast: ‘Innovation happens all over the place’

Innovations podcast kicks off with chat about developing tomorrow's workforce

Jose-Marie Griffiths and Josh Robinson speaking into microphones

Episode Transcript

Sanford Health has a new podcast series: “Innovations.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore the ways science and technology are helping to bridge the gap between discovery and care:

  • How an engineer with a passion for problem solving became a leading surgeon developing over 200 patents worldwide
  • Why genomics plays such an important role in veterans’ health, with special guest Dr. David Shulkin, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • How the entrance of Big Tech players into health care is impacting the way that companies build talent to drive innovation through technology

Listen to the Sanford Health Innovations Podcast — available now on your favorite podcast apps and on Sanford Health News.

Josh Robinson (Host): Thanks for joining us today on Sanford Health Innovations Podcast. I’m Josh Robinson, and I’m joined here today by Dr. Jose-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University. Dr. Griffiths, thank you for joining me today, appreciate it.

Dr. Jose-Marie Griffiths (Guest): Thank you for inviting me. I’m pleased to be here.

Host: Our topic today is thinking about innovation and how we build talent to drive innovation to technology. I think your story is one of — one of the more interesting ones I’ve heard in terms of people that land themselves in the tech space. Born and raised outside of London, academic researcher by background. Tell us, even after traveling all the world, how did you find your way to Madison, South Dakota?

Dr. Griffiths: Well it is an interesting journey. First of all, I do have technology in my background, so I started off in physics and moved over into computer science, computational science. I was invited to this country to go be a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, and while I was there I was offered a job in Washington, D.C., doing work for federal agencies, predominately the U.S. Department of Energy. From there, I went to the University of Tennessee as a distinguished scientist, and was then had my arm twisted to become a CIO, you know what that’s like — you know what that’s like [laughs]. So I was the CIO for a number of years at the University of Tennessee and then recruited to go to the University of Michigan as their CIO, the first CIO they really had. I bumped around a couple of other universities after that but eventually I was looking for a position where I could take the experienced that I developed over the years and where I could apply it, and Dakota State — the mix of programs they have at Dakota State seem very, very close to my background and experience and I thought perhaps I can bring some of what I’ve learned from around the world to Dakota State and it’s worked very well so far.

Host: That’s a great story, and I should mention DSU is — it’s par, not only locally but regionally, some of the things you’ve been doing with the NSA and some other federal government programs is just amazing. Two out of our very senior exec leader team in technology here at Sanford are DSU alums, which you know, so it’s a great program we’re very proud of down here.

Dr. Griffiths: Yeah I like to say we’ve evolved from the little university on the prairie to the cyber powerhouse of the plains.

Host: I like that.

Dr. Griffiths: Yep, yep [laughs].

Host: I want to steal that, shamelessly of course [laughs]. So we’re talking about innovation, and that’s a term we come across a lot in our field. Frankly it’s a term that’s a little frustrating to me because I think it can be overused, and I haven’t really found — you ask two people that question you get for sure two different answers. So what does innovation mean to you? How do you define that?

Dr. Griffiths: To me innovation means looking at developing solutions to problems that haven’t been developed before. In a way that’s the researcher in me. I’m always looking at sort of generating new knowledge or new approaches. I think you could teach innovation, you can teach the process of innovation, but innovation is almost a mindset. You have to have people who are willing to take risks, careful risks, but nevertheless willing to go and look outside the box and try something new. If you’re not willing to take a risk, you can’t be innovative.

So to me that’s a key element for innovation, and technology of course breeds innovation, just in and of itself. It allows you to think about doing things in new and different ways, and every now and then you have an ah ha moment that really takes you forward in a big leap and that’s very satisfying for people who are entrepreneurial in nature, people who are innovators, people who like to do new things.

Host: Yeah, we had dinner probably about a month ago now, you were kind enough to invite us into your home, and then the very next day we bumped into each other at the airport. You were going to Silicon Valley. I know you have testified in Congress and other things in D.C. You cross paths with leaders locally, globally, nationally. Who do you see that’s doing innovation really well?

Dr. Griffiths: Well I think everybody tries to do some innovation, you know. I think that we see some of the big companies. I think Amazon has turned us on our heads in the way we think about things we do every day. It’s changed people’s lives in quite very distinct ways. In education, I’ve seen Arizona State University has a very entrepreneurial president that thinks out of the box and pushes the envelope a lot. I’ve enjoyed interacting with him and watching the way he develops.

I think — but I think everybody is trying in a way to innovate. So the first market, the people who try to innovate; there are organizations that stay back in your own field, I mean in health care we’ve seen tremendous innovation driven by technology and now we’re looking at turning that again on its head as we say a lot health care is not going to happen at the big major medical centers, it’s actually going to switch over to health care in the home, particularly for people who have chronic conditions where they don’t really need every single visit to go to the major medical center, but can report back and be managed — have their circumstances managed remotely through the use of technology. So I think innovation happens all over the place.

We do tend to be a little resistant. Even I’m a little resistant every time I’m asked to change a password, I think really do I have to do that one more time because I have lots of passwords for lots of systems. So we always resist a lot.

I did a study on diffusion of innovations a number of years ago, and Edward Rodgers had written the book, The Diffusion of Innovations, and he came to work with us, and we looked at innovations in information systems and information organizations, and it was very clear to me that no organization can innovate in all areas. You can innovate for a while, you can be very successful in innovating for a while, but you just can’t innovate on everything all the time. It’s too stressful, it takes a lot out of you, and you just can’t quite consolidate on the innovations that you do make successfully. So I think we see people coming in and out of the innovation cycle.

I don’t think anybody in particular or any one organization is particularly innovative over any other. The key ultimately is going to be how and when do you move? Do you think about what your move is going to do for your market or your market value? And are you able to sustain that move forward to actually generate the kind of innovation and the effects of innovation that you’re expecting?

Host: It’s been my experience, some of my frustration with that word innovation, is so often times people think it just kind of happens by accident, and how we think about innovation at Sanford Health is just the opposite. You really do have to be intentional around it. All the way from, you mentioned it earlier, it’s a mindset, you have to hire for that skill set, you have to hire for that kind of personality and mindset and we’re very intentional about that at Sanford all the way down to really being constructive around what kind of compensation models do you have for those people who are on the team and are being innovative.

You have been accused, I’ll use that word, but you’ve been accused of really being a leader and one of the most innovative people in our region, and for all the right reasons. I used the word accuse, but I mean that as a compliment. How do you think about innovation at DSU or how does organizational DSU approach innovation?

Dr. Griffiths: Well when I arrived at DSU I took a little time to find out a little more about what DSU was, how it had evolved to where it was, what we were doing well, what we seemed to be built strength — what seemed to be our strengths, and then —

Host: So you didn’t come in and change everything on day two.

Dr. Griffiths: No, those people who come and sweep clean, that’s the wrong thing to do. First of all you’ll lose a lot of good people that way and that’s never been my mindset. I think every individual wants to do a good job. Sometimes they’re not in the right kind of position, sometimes it really isn’t going to work out, but for the most part people want to do the right thing.

So I found at Dakota State a very, very good series of academic programs in the area of focus that they have, which is computer science and cyber security, very, very good programs, but what I found was while they were a leader nationally, perceived a leader nationally by a narrow set of people, every academic institution in the country is chasing computer sciences and cyber security, and many institutions have deeper pockets than we do, so the question was how can we stay in the lead pack? And we then made changes so that we could stay in the lead pack, and that was to develop a research activity.

We’re opening our new first research facility in a couple of months. We strengthened our academic programs. We took that niche mission that we have, which is to be the computer science, information technology school of the public higher education system in South Dakota, and instead of seeing that as a weakness, say well all the things we can’t do, we strengthen — we strengthen our resolve around that mission and say what else can we do that focuses on this mission and how can we make that strong throughout the institution, and then of course you attract the people who can help make the dream a reality.

Host: It’s a process though.

Dr. Griffiths: It is, it takes time, it takes energy. That’s why you can’t innovate in all areas all the time, you’d just be exhausted. It just takes a lot out of you.

Host: Yeah, my role as CIO here at Sanford, it’s been a role I’ve been in now for 2, 2-1/2 years, was asked to step into the role because I don’t have a deep technology background. We recognized our team was at a point where we really needed to go through a business transformation and I was asked to help lead them through that, and so I don’t really look at my value to the team as driving some of the deep technical work but really driving some of the talent think. So this is a topic that’s something very near and dear to my heart.

I read a study a few weeks ago that suggested less than a quarter of new graduates coming out of undergrad want to work for a large organization. More than half want to work for those startup, really small, nimble, agile organizations. So the reality is I lead a 700 person technology team that’s in support of a 6 billion dollar enterprise. One, how do you interpret those statistics, and two there’s a lot of people that are in kind of my shoes. That you’re leading not a startup, not a small team. How do you approach that? How do we be attractive to the kids you see every day?

Dr. Griffiths: I think the statistics are largely right, especially with this new generation of young people and they’re animated by new ideas and they want to follow those ideas. They don’t see themselves in a single career or a single job for life. That’s just not the mindset they have, probably not the mindset a lot of their parents had. So I think what you have to do is to find ways to engage them and get them engaged in that entrepreneurial mindset.

I believe we’re going to have an innovation economy. We’re going to have an entrepreneurial and innovation economy going forward. The world is changing. That doesn’t mean you don’t have large organizations, but within the large organizations, you need to have these entrepreneurial pockets that allow people to move forward, and then perhaps in a large organization, you may have an opportunity to give people a bit of a break between innovations and then they can go onto the next one.

In the universities it’s the same. I mean gosh we have the reputation of being the most bureaucratic, slowest institutions to change, which is one of the reasons why I’m at Dakota State. It’s relatively small, and therefore can be much more agile in responding to change, but I think what I brought to the university was a real sense of who are we doing this for? What’s our audience? Who’s our customer? How do we play a role not only in Madison, South Dakota, a town of 7,000 people scattered about, but how can we help build the economy in South Dakota generally and then in the region?

If you look at the growth of startups, for example, around the country, there’s nothing in the middle of the country. If you look at the cyber security businesses, there’s nothing in the middle of the country. There’s a huge opportunity right there just looking at the map, and we have an opportunity to do a lot in that regard.

Host: As you think about developing tomorrow’s workforce, as it relates to innovation, what are those skills and competencies you see people really needing to invest into the most?

Dr. Griffiths: Oh they have to be — they have to be open minded, they have to be open to new ideas. They have to be able to communicate in different ways with different kinds of people. That’s clear, all kinds of things. They have to have very strong analytical and thinking skills so that they can look at opportunities and decide whether that’s the way to go forward, and they have to be willing to try. Try, fail, and try again, which is the mark of an entrepreneur of course.

Host: You know we obviously have the challenge, we have 700 people on the team today, and so the next question, the logical question, would be okay great, how do I develop those skills in the team members I already have?

A couple of ways we think about that within our technology team is exactly that. We like to run fast, work smart. We want to celebrate our failures. So often you don’t win, or you don’t learn as much when you win as you do when you fail, and so we’ve gone so far as, we give out awards to people that tried something new, and brave, and exciting and it didn’t work out. We want to be able to celebrate those things because the fear of failure is what we felt has held us back so often.

What are some other things you have seen work or think would work really well with those organizations that have got a team today? How do they develop them and have them be more innovative?

Dr. Griffiths: I do like the idea of celebrating failure because you’ll learn from it — you’ll learn more from failure than you will from success because you become too cocky really if you’re too successful. I had an organization like yours at the University of Michigan, 1,000 IT people reporting to me as CIO, and I was an unusual choice as CIO. I did not come up through the IT ranks. I came up through the research ranks, but we created one organization that was very much at the forefront of technology and applications and we put certain groups of people together, faculty and IT personnel to brainstorm ideas and put them into an environment where different projects could share ideas across projects, so a lot of cross pollination of ideas even if they were working in different areas and I think we see that now.

We’re building an incubator for spin-off — new business spin-offs, and people keep saying to me, well what kind of building do you have to have? Well it has to be fairly open because you don’t innovate in isolation. It has to be fairly open. People have to be able to get together. People have to be able to network with other entrepreneurs and with people in established businesses, so there’s this constant learning going on about what possibilities are, what the precautions should be, what you should watch out for, what the barriers are, and then get help in terms of moving forward together.

So I’m very much — I mean for a while I was a collaborating scientist. I took that term as a great term of art. The art of collaboration, and I think that’s very important as we go forward. So I would say finding groups of projects where there can be cross pollination of ideas, not necessarily on just that thing you’re focused on, but on how you approach it, how you reward people, how you encourage people when they seem to be at a barrier, how you help them overcome that, these kinds of things become the transformational kinds of skills and knowledge that you can build on over time, and the more groups do that, the more that knowledge and skill will grow.

Host: You know as you were sharing your answer there, it made me think of an example that we recently had our technology team, it was in multiple different locations, it came together in one. It was in net new space, and very intentionally we built out smaller workstation styles with very open concept, and it was very different than the space a lot of our teams were moving from and a lot of reaction, good, bad, otherwise, and as you’re talking there those things that really drive successful organizations and teams, are there certain demographics or geographies around the U.S. or the world that lend people to kind of lean into those things more so than others? Or is it just a functional leadership in driving that?

Dr. Griffiths: I think it’s a function of leadership. I think people — there are some people who are going to be averse to change and they’re really risk averse. They’re just not going to try it and they need to have sort of a stable environment where they can get on with things, but there are a lot more people I think who are willing to take careful risks, building risks over time, right? You don’t want to take the hugest risk. The first time you’re in a job or you’ve got a new project you don’t want to take the biggest risk right there, but I think building up the tolerance for risk and learning from failure, and learning from success, I think allows people to move forward.

So I think ultimately it is leadership, and I believe leadership stars at the top of an organization and it permeates through. So I’ve studied leadership, I’ve been invited to talk about leadership at various universities. I think there are different styles of leadership, any of which can engender this kind of environment.

You don’t want to be somebody who’s pushing for innovation all the time everywhere, but also recognize the limitations of people’s ability to cope with change. It is stressful. It really doesn’t matter. We can live on it, we can feed on it, we get adrenalized by it. That’s not really a term is it? Adrenalized?

Host: It is now [laughs].

Dr. Griffiths: I’ll say it’s a very British term that we use all the time, but I really think that leadership is key and then building a strong leadership team to take the ideas and move them through an organization is very important and I don’t always mean, I’m signaling here top to bottom, but it actually comes bottom to top as well, both. So an organizational commitment to change, an organizational tolerance for risk, and recognition that risk carries cost, and being able to move forward in a planned, as you say, deliberate way, becomes important.

Host: Dr. Griffiths, every time I talk to you I feel a little bit smarter, so you didn’t disappoint. Thank you again so much for your time today, appreciate it.

Dr. Griffiths: Thanks very much.

Posted In Innovations

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