When we buy a drill are we really buying a drill or are we seeking to buy the holes a drill can make?

I spent this week at the annual CLAL/Rabbis Without Borders Retreat in Baltimore, MD. While there, I had the opportunity to learn with Erin Satterwhite, the Vice-President of Innovation at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. You might be wondering why a group of rabbis would spend time with a leader in the healthcare industry. Her commitment to innovation is one that we need to foster within the Jewish community and, as you can see from her own words below, she believes that the same principles that guide her in the healthcare industry can guide us within our synagogues and other Jewish organizations.

You can find Erin’s words below.

Keynote Speech Delivered by Erin Satterwhite

CLAL/Rabbis Without Borders Annual Retreat

Edited slightly for this letter

I am so honored to be here with you today.  I have to admit it was more than a little intimidating preparing for this – you after all speak publicly for a living, me only on occasion, and you also happen to know a thing or two about innovation.

I am an innovation professional and am also lucky to be on the CLAL board.  A little background on me – I grew up in Minnesota and Texas, and spent the last three years just outside of New York City, before moving back to Minnesota to be closer to my family.  I do yoga, I run, and I get to hang around some pretty amazing organizations who are doing great social innovations.

In my professional life, I started as a biological scientist which shapes a lot of the way I think.  I went on and did new product invention and development at 3M, got into innovation in a pretty big way, and got a few things launched in my time both at 3M and later at Bayer.  You might actually have seen one (of my products) on TV – Aleve Direct Therapy, which was my baby at Bayer (the aspirin company).  Shameless plug – If anyone is struggling with lower back pain – check this out – remote controlled and discreet pain management using electromedicine!

I left Bayer last summer and now am privileged to lead Innovation at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota looking at new ways to make a healthy difference in people’s lives.  So that’s me.

(Like you,) I too have had great ideas that could really make a difference, really solve a problem, but…

Fundamentally people do not want to change the way they do things, which makes it hard to find any funding, to get a bureaucracy to work for you, or align incentives to a new and better path

No matter where you work, or what you are trying to improve, the themes are the same… this is our reality.  Resistance to change and failures are part of our reality.

My journey as an innovator started with an early failure <show picture of my “suction cup Band-Aid”>… I did this in my third grade inventor’s fair.  You are probably shocked that it didn’t win… but this didn’t stop me from proudly sending it to Johnson & Johnson in hopes that it would be their next great thing.  It was great when they actually wrote me back… thanking me but encouraging a “continued pursuit of inventing solutions to problems,” … alas, another fail.

While the suction cup Band-Aid was clearly going nowhere…It matters that we do actually succeed in solving problems.  Because, we have a lot of them.  The world needs people who do the hard work to make it a better place, to fight disorder, ignorance and hate, and create simplicity, order, peace and love.

All of us are motivated by something intrinsic.  The idea for my suction cup Band-Aid was founded in a desire to make it better for people like me because when I was nine months old, I suffered a traumatic burn.

It was the result of my early curiosity.  In fact, my first words were “what’s that?” So when my mother turned her back for a brief second, I gave the tablecloth a tug and the hot tea came tumbling off, splashing my left side.  My desire to know “what’s that” turned into a life changing event.

Growing up I didn’t know any different.  I had no memories of a life without my large scar, or my regular surgeries.  I became fascinated with healthcare and wanted to make it better.

My burn could have killed me, either from shock, or infection.  I was a lucky little girl due to my wonderful family and doctors.  And now over 33 years and 13 surgeries later, here I stand.

I am a healthcare innovator.  My job is essentially to help big legacy organizations stay competitive in a changing landscape.  I focus on ENABLING NEW MODELS for how people are going to get their health related jobs done.  Whether it was making hospitals safer, helping people get relief from their back pain, or now delivering healthcare to people rather than expecting them to be delivered to the care, my career has been an evolution of my life.

I find meaning in helping make the experience of being a patient better, because I was a patient, and because I grew up knowing that when I see something that needs to change – who but me is responsible for seeing that change happen.

As the oldest of three girls, you might think my burn trauma was a seminal event in my parents lives… however I have a special sister who was born 16 months after my injury, and the gift of her presence has had a far greater impact on our lives.

It is pretty shocking to hear this now, but when she was born a doctor came into the room to inform my mother that her baby girl was ‘Mongoloid’ – a callus, racist description for what is commonly known today as Down Syndrome.  This was the state of things in an uninformed, unempathetic culture of the early 80’s.

My parents found themselves adrift.  Nobody in the hospital told them what this means…Will she talk?  Walk?  Will she bathe herself?  Will she have friends, learn in school, go to dances, or play sports?  Will she love?  Will she live, and, for how long?

Knowing something needed to be done, coffee cups in hand, my mom sat around kitchen tables with other parents and planned what would become the Minnesota Down Syndrome Association.

As Emma grew older, my dad saw a gap in her access to sports, so he started a delegation of Special Olympics, which grew over 10 years under my dad’s leadership from 20 to 200 athletes, multiple year-round sports and his second full-time job.  A pretty amazing success.

As innovators, it is pretty remarkable when our efforts to start something new actually result in lasting success, in fact it is remarkably rare – about 9 in 10 startups fail, whether in Silicon Valley, social innovation, or corporate R&D.  It is too easy to take the rare successes for granted, and not understand the mechanics behind what enables success, or perhaps, what enabled them to avoid failure.

(We’ve all had ideas that have failed).  My guess is – (many of these failures were) not because of laziness or lack of hard work, because hard work is just the table stakes.

Great ideas fail all the time because of cultural misalignment, incomplete understanding of the customer’s problem, lack of testing and learning, the forces of competition and most dangerously – because the ideas are not on the vector of where the market is heading.

These are the challenges I deal with EVERY DAY.  My job is to get big organizations to create and capture new value by fundamentally shifting the way they do business.  My team has to fight the Goliath establishment, navigate bureaucratic loopholes, and adjust our vectors constantly.

Hence the nervous tick that comes up occasionally… maybe you have developed one too?

So how do we stay sane?

We do know why things fail, but more importantly, we know how to play the game and minimize the big failures.  It does not mean we always succeed, in fact we probably fail more.  But because we know the rules of innovation, we fail faster, cheaper, we learn more, and we move on to the next idea sooner.  Failure is not the enemy.  Failure is also not to be lauded.  Failure becomes not an event but a part of the process to achieving success.

So, at one point you might have been saying – what do you mean customers and markets?  I serve people, I lead religious journeys, I do not sell things to people.  Well, if you do not think time is currency – think again.  People’s time is real, tangible, and finite and there is fierce competition for it.  The average life span has only 27, 375 days.  People spend their time on the things that align to what they value, and if your ideas do not create value in their framework, you are unlikely to capture their time.  They might actually choose the museum over minyan!

We can all agree that we have customers to serve. Let’s take a look at the main causes for innovation to fail when we try to serve them, and the best way to avoid that failure:

  1. The competitive strategy is wrong.  Look, competition is fierce – and you took the big established entity head-on.  You picked a fight with the big guys and are now taking away their best customers.  Solution: disrupt as a strategy.   Find customers that are not being served today and create a solution that they can access, afford, and use with minimal skill.
  1. The next failure mechanism is misalignment.  The incentives or features of the idea do not fit the current culture of the organization you are in, and they shut it down.  Solution: break off from the mothership and get more autonomy, rely as little on the existing organization as possible, and you have a much better shot at keeping it alive.
  1. The problem was not well defined. Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”  If the problem is not defined well, through the lens of the customer, chances are your idea is not going to solve their problem in the most compelling way.  You will have spent the wrong proportion of time solving the problem versus defining it.  The solution to this: an amazing guy named Clay Christensen who has been called the most influential business thinker of our time recommends we use jobs-to-be-done theory to first really understand what outcome your customer is trying to accomplish, not just what they are doing today to get it done.  Think about why you would purchase a quarter inch drill bit – you are actually buying quarter inch holes.  By framing the job, you can frame the problem better, and shape a better idea.
  1. You didn’t approach it as an experiment.  Hypothesize, test, learn, repeat.  This is at the heart of design thinking, and the scientific method.  Iteration yields better results over time, because you can build a prototype, expose it to your customers, let them give you feedback, and make it better.
  1. You were not paranoid enough.  Your idea was great but a better idea came along just a little while later and won your customers over.  Solution: do not get comfortable.  Never rest on your laurels because those who think they will not get disrupted, usually do.  Bill Gates said: “People often overestimate the change that will happen in the next two years, and grossly underestimate the change that will happen in the next ten.”  (Netflix was founded in 1997, Blockbuster filed Ch. 11 bankruptcy 2010).  Innovation is about playing the long game, so be patient if you are creating the future.  Seek external influence for your ideas and build solutions for the customers that others are not serving, because that will lead you to where the market is going, not where it has been.

The human experience is not easy, nor will it ever be.  We innovation people are the constant gardeners of the human experience, planting ideas, fighting the weeds and harvesting value.  There has been no time more important than now that CLAL/Rabbis Without Borders be successful.

The Jewish experience can be a source of beauty, peace and happiness.  It can shape better people.  It can improve the human experience, but only if we remain relevant as the context of our human experience evolves.  Darwin was a deeply religious man, and he is famous for recognizing that “It is not the strongest of the species who survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one who is most responsive to change.”  He did not see this observation standing at odds with religion but in fact strengthening his faith, and uncovering a mechanism of G-d.  He was an innovator…

You are here because you, like me, want to make things better for people.  I believe that Judaism is inherently disruptive, and this is why it has lasted so long in the face of significant religious competition. But what if now the tribal affiliations of religion are shifting to other things?

The times they are a changing… More than ever before, there is real, and big innovation happening that is creating competition for our tribal affiliations – this is all being enabled by new technologies, namely social media.

But those do not concern me, as one might in fact be able to affiliate to infinity.  What we must focus on is the innovation that is competing for the real tangible value of people’s time, from Crossfit, to Netflix, to Snapchat, to (gasp) Tinder.  Darwin might say that the competition in our environment is changing, and it is incumbent on us that Jewish continue to adapt so that it may continue serving people and their jobs-to-be-done.

I’ll conclude with another personal anecdote.  I was not born Jewish, but found it as a destination on my spiritual journey that started with the Lutherans and stopped along the way in atheism and Buddhism.  When I found Judaism, I fell in love!  And it wasn’t just with the people and the food (although the food had a lot to do with it).

I fell in love with the tools of Judaism, all designed with the inherent intent to be a good person who is appreciative of life and its many blessings.  Judaism has made me a better human being.  I appreciate more, I reflect more, and I pause more, especially on Friday nights where I really make sure I enjoy my family and focus on what is good.  I take the principals of teshuvah and tzedakah seriously.  I also have found peace with my inner skeptic because of an inability to define G-d, and in Judaism, that’s ok!  The tools of Judaism spoke to me.  The Jewish people embraced me.  I felt at home.

I do not believe that Jewish is for everyone, but the tools can help a lot of people, Jewish and not, live a more meaningful life.  So I want to give a big Yasher Koach to all of you for being a part of RWB, for taking an active role in making the world a better place, for being innovators.  The world needs your failures to be small and fast, so you can learn, pivot and succeed.

You are part of G-d’s evolutionary mechanism.  And that is a very important job-to-be-done.





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