If you have ever attended an event that left you with a deep sense of community and belonging, you have something in common with the latest group of Spark-Seed-Spread Investees, VA employees with innovative ideas or projects they are working to develop. Over 100 frontline VA staff from across the country attended this year’s virtual VHA Innovators Network (iNET) Innovation Accelerator Bootcamp (Bootcamp) on November 17-18. They were joined by Innovation Specialists, VA Central Office leaders, private-sector innovators, and VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) leadership for two days of innovation thought leadership, guidance, collaboration and community centered around the goal of changing and saving Veteran lives.
Innovation, reimagining care and services, and creating new products and devices is more than simply having an idea. It is about thoroughly understanding a problem from multiple perspectives and then creating agile, responsive ways to solve it. The Innovation Accelerator (Accelerator) is iNET’s way of guiding employee innovators on how to do that.
The Accelerator is an eight-month immersive education in innovation designed to teach Investees to deeply connect with the challenges Veterans, their caregivers and VA employees face. The Accelerator, which you become a part of via the Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program, teaches employees how to build, test, iterate, grow, market, pivot, or spread their innovative ideas.
“Every session provided invaluable information and opportunity to learn from my colleagues and discuss potential pitfalls, problems, and solutions. By the end of the second day of bootcamp, I felt like part of a community.” – Bootcamp participant
The Accelerator kicks off annually at Bootcamp, where Investees receive inspiration from Dr. Carolyn Clancy, deputy under secretary for health for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks (DEAN), VHA; Kit Teague, deputy director, VHA IE; iNET co-Directors Brynn Cole and Allison Amrhein; and a host of other innovation champions both internal and external to VA.
This year, the two days included virtual breakout sessions, with the first day dedicated to practicing and refining project pitches. Pitching is a unique and powerful skill that is important to the innovation process. Each Investee or project team member pitched three times to VA leadership and to each other, receiving feedback as they did.
“I had an absolute blast, and it was both refreshing and rewarding to absorb the creative and amazing ideas of the participants,” said Leigh Starr, deputy director, VHA Office of Systems Redesign and Improvement, of her experience during Day 1 of Bootcamp.
Investees started the second day of Bootcamp with an acting skills workshop, led by Actor-in-Residence Rob Jansen, and learned how to leverage stage theatre techniques to better drive engagement and presence in the virtual environment prevalent at the moment. The rest of the day was dedicated to project work breakout groups: setting milestones, planning for data collection, working through prototyping via storyboarding, and connecting to and refining problem statements.
Bootcamp and the Accelerator are not merely about the innovations, however. One of the central missions of iNET is in service to the true power of connecting people – building a culture and atmosphere of friendship and trust – where possibility, creativity and a bit of offbeat fun is the norm.
This year, Bootcamp attendees found themselves in breakout rooms grouped by astrological sign; they were encouraged to upload candid photos, along with a creative mini-bio for the Bootcamp Yearbook, and to meaningfully connect with each other by completing the goals in Bootcamp Bingo, such as “book virtual coffee with new friend.”
This is just the beginning, as Investees “go back” to their facilities with the connections, lessons, and tools to advance both their individual projects and the culture of innovation at VA. Throughout the next year, they will receive support, encouragement, training, mentoring and friendship as the Accelerator delivers a dynamic education aimed at accelerating the lifecycle of their innovative ideas while simultaneously building, strengthening and growing the rich community of innovation within VA.
Allison Amrhein, MPH, is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network.