Good for Kaiser. Good for America.

Jun 4, 2013, 3:00 PM, Posted by

Mike Painter, senior program officer Mike Painter, senior program officer

Earlier this year, Fast Company released its list of the 50 most innovative companies and named Nike No. 1. In that article, Nike CEO Mark Parker noted, “One of my fears is being this big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that's happy with its success.... Companies fall apart when their model is so successful that it stifles thinking that challenges it.” Kaiser Permanente did not make the Fast Company list—this year.  But this nation-leading health care provider is working hard to ensure it’s not a big plugged-up company satisfied with its past success. KP works hard at innovating. KP's leaders and staff clearly do not take their past success and excellence for granted.

One of the many things KP does well is collaboration—and we at RWJF are very grateful for our emerging collaboration with them. KP invited RWJF to participate in its annual Innovation Retreat in Denver last week. KP holds this internal national meeting for key innovators from across its system and interested senior leadership—and, importantly—some Kaiser members.  There were just a few lucky external participants, including my colleague (er, boss), John Lumpkin, and me. John gave a thought-provoking TED-style talk on decision science and context, and I led small group discussions on the future of influence—topics near and dear to RWJF.

In addition to collaboration and learning, openness, transparency, curiosity and introspection were major themes during the retreat.

One of the things I liked best was the opening—which included a sleek video vision of what health care could be. Interestingly, this was followed by what, at first, seemed like hokey company skits. These skits, though, were perfect—they guilelessly and harmlessly addressed the yang of the innovation and the yin of a big company. Staff depicted and laughed about some of the pragmatic foibles and limits to soaring innovation aspirations within a large, national company—even one of our finest.

Early in the meeting, KP CIO Phil Fasano (@fasanophil) held an intimate conversation with the participants. He underscored the transparency theme—with a pre-announcement that KP would be opening an application programming interface (API) for software developers to some of KP's data on its 9 million members from across the nation.  The idea is to prompt app developers to use the mountains of KP data and start innovating. I loved that—openness—the first big, national health care company to do that. KP announced that API on the main stage at Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. yesterday. 

The retreat planners worked hard to produce a creative meeting using both TED and Ignite-style formats. Breakout sessions were varied and designed to be repeated—and prompt discussion. In my sessions, I learned a great deal from my very smart and engaged audience. They jumped right into a conversation about new tools in influence like networking, behavioral economics and data analytics.

And the members—the wonderful KP members. KP has an exceptional commitment to listening to and learning from its members. Friend, mentor and RWJF Pioneer Advisor Ted Eytan (@tedeytan) moderated an impressive session with four of them. The members were engaging and confident—even brash. They clearly love KP—but they also didn't hold back on providing constructive feedback. I found myself squirming a couple times, but then I looked around at the KP staff. They just seemed to be listening, learning and absorbing. For this session, Ted asked the KP participants to stand and gather around the stage. The feeling in that room was moving—KP staff and members, who both obviously care deeply about their common enterprise, talking intensely and honestly about how to improve. It seems like such an obvious thing to do—you have to remind yourself how unusual that is.

Health care is undergoing rapid, intense change. New companies are emerging daily.  Legacy enterprises are struggling to adjust. Many will not make it. All will need to change. There are no guarantees that leading companies that succeeded under the previous ground rules will continue to succeed with the new. It was fascinating to watch this one—a dynamic health care engine that has worked so hard to be excellent and stay intimate and human—pondering these trends and charging bravely into the breach. 

My sense is that Fast Company might want to check out KP next year. Just a thought.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.