Innovation: an ancient concept that never gets old

Dr. Rosenberg

The following is based on remarks by Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg in “Contexts of Technological Change in Medicine: Centres and Margins”, that he delivered at an international workshop on innovation held at the Jewish General Hospital this past April. The following excerpt, as well as others from that address, have been adapted and will be presented as a series in 360.

I’m not a researcher in the field of innovation. I’m more of a practitioner thereof or, you might even say, a victim thereof. However, throughout my career, I’ve been preoccupied with the challenge of finding ways to reimagine our system of health care and social services to better help those who turn to us in their time of need. I believe the answer lies, in large part, in the origins of good ideas. In other words, where does innovation come from?

Despite the advances that modern society has made, we should not forget that innovative thinking has been an essential part of human activity for millennia. For example, a historical reference that dates back 2,000 years—distant, yet highly relevant—concerns an innovator who, like so many others, did not initially seem like a person of potential. This story is relevant to us, because it speaks to the notion of centres and margins, even if it does not actually use those terms.

In the first century CE, a renowned rabbi by the name of Hillel called his students to him and asked them, “Are you all here?” “Yes,” they replied. However, one of them added, “Everyone came, except the least of us.” So Hillel said, “Bring that least person, too, because in the future, he will be the leader of the generation.”

That “least” student later became Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who played a significant role during the destruction of Jerusalem in CE 69-70. As the Roman General Vespasian laid waste to the city, ben Zakkai arranged to be smuggled out in a coffin. He then met with Vespasian and offered to surrender Jerusalem, on the condition that the General give him the nearby city of Yavne.

As a result of this agreement, Yavne became an academic centre and Judaism, as we recognize it today, eventually came into being. What a legacy from an individual who was considered the “least” of Hillel’s students!

What this story reminds us is that we all have a role to play in transforming health care and social services. Those of you “on the ground”—as healthcare staff, volunteers, or in a wide range of other fields—are making the delivery of care possible. No matter where in our CIUSSS you work, and no matter what tasks you perform, you have a unique perspective that puts you in an ideal position to share your ideas and propose change.

The story about ben Zakkai also has particular relevance for our leaders and managers: no potentially beneficial idea should ever be dismissed. Give everyone on your team the opportunity to be bold, to be fearless. Nurture, challenge and support their creativity, and provide them with the conditions that motivate and encourage them to develop, refine, test and implement their new ideas.

Fast-forward to our own era of innovation and high-tech gadgetry, some of the most ground-breaking of which was promoted by the legendary Steve Jobs. After essentially being fired in 1985, Jobs left Apple, the company he had co-founded. But when he returned in the 1997, Apple aired a commercial that saluted those who make meaningful change possible with their unconventional ideas: “Here’s to the crazy ones.” To that, I can only add, “Here’s to the ‘least’ of us, who make the most of their talents!”

Lawrence Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D.
President and CEO