Innovation can be implemented carefully and the benefits of collective knowledge shared to put in place new ideas with far less risk

Matt Harrison

In healthcare, innovation in building projects has started to be taken seriously in some quarters. But there is still an overriding opinion that innovation equals risk. Those involved in healthcare construction should reassess the very concept of innovation and the way it is managed.

As many in the industry know, public healthcare estates teams are caught up in a turbulent period. Backlog maintenance is now sitting at £5bn, while its estimated that at least £10bn of additional capital funding is required for the delivery of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs).

With such a funding crisis, is there any room for innovation within healthcare construction?

The answer, of course, has to be “yes”. But, and this is important, it doesn’t have to be the revolutionary “big bang” change that people often associate with the word. Nor does it need to involve huge additional cost.

By changing the way that innovation is perceived and the way innovative methods are managed, we can help drive efficiency for organisations, programmes and projects.

How can this be achieved?

On standard projects, many of the processes or activities underpinning a project (scheduling, establishing the project organisation, forming teams, change control and programme management), could be improved, standardised and repeated. Yet, rather than improving upon existing methods, project teams typically start afresh.

Discovering innovators or innovations needs to be encouraged and closely managed. The wider industry has embraced innovation in current megaprojects; devising and implementing innovation strategies to seek out new technologies and processes which align to the organisation.

Within the NHS, some capital projects have been delivering schemes with innovative solutions to common problems; however, this has not been exploited effectively. There is a challenge to recognise these new methods and communicate them to other projects, programmes and organisations. Many projects do benchmark and look for exemplars, but more should be done to share the collective knowledge from projects, which is often retained within teams or individuals.

More should be done to share the collective knowledge from projects, which is often retained within teams or individuals

We should perhaps learn from initiatives such as i3P, a platform for infrastructure projects, which aims to convert “ideas into opportunities and practical solutions”. These collaborative arrangements are seeking to share knowledge among the projects and address opportunities or challenges jointly.

At a programme level, organisations could consider implementing an innovation strategy that focuses on the purpose, implementation and timing of innovations during the projects. It could share the knowledge from the project teams co-ordinating the efforts. It could also identify areas that might benefit the whole programme; if not for investment from the programme budget, from the organisation or a wider collective. These don’t need to be “big” innovations – sharing the unnewsworthy, granular ideas can bring just as many benefits.

It should also be said that the ability for a project to innovate relies on controlling the risks associated with ideas through planning and risk management at the front end, for instance by using off-site trials to mitigate the risk of novel ways of constructing.

In summary, innovation is not just about the latest, greatest breakthrough. It is also about setting governance and management arrangements to promote and control innovation even at an incremental level. Rather than additional costs, these innovations could be a way of bridging the NHS funding gap and driving further benefits for programmes and projects.

Matt Harrison is a consultant at Essentia Trading