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The following summary of an article that appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review examines how the skillful application of the art of criticism can be more powerful than traditional ideation methods in taking products, services, and business models in new, profitable directions. As technology continues to rapidly transform healthcare, urgent care providers must familiarize themselves with methodologies they can employ in developing new value propositions towards growing their businesses.

Powerful ideation methods such as design thinking and crowdsourcing allow organizations to tap both insiders and customers for obtaining a seemingly endless supply of novel business possibilities, at little to no cost. Yet organizations still lack a proven method for identifying and capturing the most promising opportunities amid the mass of gathered ideas.

Celebrated disruptive innovator Clayton Christensen, as well as W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne (notable for inventing the “blue ocean strategy”) each asserts that it’s big changes in society and technology that serve to challenge and redefine the “value” of a value proposition. In other words, these factors serve to fundamentally change what a customer or a given market considers valuable, which opens the door for novel innovations to take root and flourish.

Author Roberto Verganti, through studying 24 companies that uncovered and seized upon big opportunities, synthesized their individual approaches into a repeatable, four-step process that other organizations can follow. And unlike traditional ideation-based methods, Verganti’s approach is rooted in the art of criticism: creating an individual new direction a company could take to provide a valuable new offering to a market, then subjecting that idea to criticism in order to strengthen and refine it.

The Art of Criticism

To uncover and ultimately exploit the opportunities provided by innovative technologies and societal changes, businesses must question existing assumptions about what is good or valuable—and then through reflection, develop a new way to critically examine those novel concepts and ideas.

The art of criticism involves a four-step process—which urgent care operators trying to stay ahead of the growing pack of competitors and develop brand new value propositions, would do well to follow (where feasible):

  1. Individual reflection. Create a team or task force charged with coming up with a new vision or direction for a product, service, process, or business model. Then ask each individual to spend time alone in coming up with a couple of proposals.

The idea behind solo contemplation, as opposed to a group method or soliciting customer feedback, is that the criticism process works best when an individual is allowed to work out a proposal alone, without interference or a momentum-killing contradictory viewpoint.

  1. Sparring partners. When a team member has created a solid vision, they then subject his or her vision to the criticism of a trusted peer. The peer plays a devil’s advocate-type role, which allows the person to put any kind of farfetched proposal on the table without fear of it being dismissed as implausible.

History has shown that pairings of this nature, among trusted partners who can sympathetically and constructively criticize each other, have been the foundation of many breakthroughs in art and society. Some examples of pairs who created legendary companies include Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Nest Labs, which developed a popular “smart” home thermometer in 2011, credits this type of pairing between founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers for the thermometer’s success. During the initial idea formulation stages, the pair’s respect and admiration for each other allowed them to be critical and playfully mocking toward each other’s viewpoints while still digging deeper for the hidden value proposition of the thermometer—which turned out to be a breakthrough innovation.

  1. Radical circles. The third step involves bringing the promising hypotheses from the second step into a larger group for deeper criticism. This larger group is referred to as the radical circle, with the other group members offering up their new directions for criticism, as well. To be effective, the radical circle should have the following characteristics:
  • It should be constructive and positive, not destructive or negative.
  • It should include members from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and personalities.
  • To unify the members, an “enemy,” source of opposition, or direction the company seeks to avoid, should be nominated. A common enemy allows the group a point of focus to direct their energy and keeps the process positive and creative.
  1. In the final step, the possible directions that were further fleshed out in the radical circle would now be subjected to the criticism of outsiders. Again, unlike ideation methods, outsiders are not intended to generate new ideas. Rather, they’re meant to ask probing questions and challenge the new direction in order to sharpen and develop the value proposition.

Along with targeted individuals, the outsiders should include people from wide-ranging fields and perspectives. These individuals are called interpreters. Phillips Electronics, when developing an application for making medical scans less anxiety-causing, followed this principle. In addition to the standard medical personnel, the outsider group comprised a diverse cross-section of individuals: experts from the fields of psychology, contemporary interior design, LED technology and video projection, and a child psychologist. This disparate group of experts was able to lend valuable insights to the discussion, and provide perspectives that the radical circle would not have considered.

This criticism method is an extremely effective tool for companies attempting to leverage new technologies in uncovering unique value propositions, with many notable innovations standing as testament. The Microsoft Xbox gaming console and the lightweight Alfa Romero 4C sports car are but two examples of groundbreaking innovations that were born of the criticism method.

The Urgent Care Connection

Urgent care operators seeking brand differentiation can glean elements from Verganti’s criticism method to consider ideas for novel value propositions they could offer their patients. Recall that of the 24 innovative companies Verganti studied, each followed their own individual approaches that were later synthesized into his own method. Hence, urgent care operators could review which of the four-step criticism processes are applicable to their practice models, then undergo the process. They don’t have to utilize them all if it’s not practical to do so.

Mobile technologies, healthcare delivery models, and service offerings are examples of areas primed for contemplation and exploration. Urgent care operators should explore these areas in earnest, and apply the criticism method whenever possible.

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Practice Velocity, LLC and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.

The Innovative Power of Criticism

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc

President of Experity Consulting and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine
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