Pioneering Reflections

Jan 3, 2013, 12:53 PM, Posted by

Al Shar Al Shar

Before retiring, Al Shar, vice president and senior program officer, reflected on his time with Pioneer and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Along with a few others here, I’ve been on the Pioneer team since it began in 2003. What makes my case somewhat unique was that I didn’t have to be on the team. I had a “day job,” and no one asked or told me to join; I was there exclusively because I wanted to be. Looking back, what’s interesting about that is how little I, and others, understood about what Pioneer should be.

From the beginning, the very term Pioneer made it unique. It resonated within and outside of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). I remember the first board meeting where Pioneer was discussed. The board was engaged, offering multiple suggestions, and wanting to hear more. We had lots of ideas, but while many of those ideas were inventive and addressed problems, they did not really address the profound issues that could significantly change health and health care. We needed to mature and better understand our role.

As time progressed, it became clearer to me that we were serving a three-fold function for RWJF. The first: showcase the fact that the Foundation was not—as some perceived—cautious and slow to act. The second: help introduce new ways of working inside the Foundation.  The third: look for innovation that could disrupt health and health care. For the latter, we began to formulate—even if we didn’t, at first, articulate—a strategy. All along there were some impressive successes and, with many of them, we could focus on a specific theory of change. It also became clear that the field was intrigued with our team’s work.

Our next stage compares well to adolescence. We wanted to exert our independence, wanted a unique brand. What we didn’t realize was that a good part of our cachet was that we were part of the larger entity with a stellar reputation. That, combined with the important value we brought to the Foundation, helped bring us back home where we belonged.

It soon became time for a more deliberate and thoughtful plan for Pioneer. We realized that we needed to more explicitly codify and internalize how we can best impact health and health care. That plan has been in place not quite a year, but I already see changes in the way we work and how we are perceived. It’s clear to me that this framework needs to, and will, evolve, but it positions the team in a very exciting place.

So, it is with some sadness that I am retiring from RWJF without being able to play an active role in this next stage for Pioneer.  But I will be looking on and I look forward to following the team as one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.