Don’t Call It a Pilot: 4 Tips for Driving Innovation in Senior Living

“The industry needs more Kari Olsons.”

So said a tech entrepreneur in a recent Senior Housing News “Confessions” article. The entrepreneur believes that many senior living providers lack an effective innovation strategy, but Front Porch is an exception, thanks to Olson’s work as the non-profit’s chief innovation and technology officer.

Olson took the stage on Thursday at the Ziegler Link-Age Fund Symposium in Chicago, to share some of Front Porch’s best practices. Glendale, California-based Front Porch operates 10 senior living communities and provides a variety of other services and affordable housing options.

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Olson was joined at the Ziegler Link-Age event by two other innovation leaders, Trish Barbato and Amy Stevens. Barbato has helped create a robust approach to innovation since becoming senior vice president of innovation and strategic partnerships at Revera about four years ago. Mississauga, Ontario-based Revera owns more than 500 senior living communities across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom — including a majority stake in Sunrise Senior Living. Stevens is executive vice president of provider solutions and product at Avia, which works with leading health systems to drive their innovation strategies.

Here are six tips they shared for jumpstarting tech investment and innovation in senior living:

Create the freedom to fail: It’s crucial, but not enough, for CEOs to prioritize and fund innovation. They should also give their innovation leaders the freedom to fail. This has been “the greatest gift” that her CEO has given her, Olson said.

“Actually living that and celebrating failure as a moment of learning is really important,” she said.

Reverse the pitch: Promising startups are skilled at making their pitches to prospective clients, but senior living providers should have their own pitches, focused on what they need from an innovation partner, Olson said.

“Tell the tech companies what you want — reverse the pitch,” she said, explaining that doing so has led to more productive, successful partnerships for Front Porch.

Also, senior living providers should not get too fixated on the vendor selection process, Stevens emphasized. Evaluating potential partners can be feel like a fun, Shark Tank-style exercise, she said, but it’s just one step in the much longer innovation process, which begins with careful formulation of a business strategy and must continue through the multi-stage process of adoption and scaling up. 

Don’t call it a pilot: While it is absolutely advisable to test new technology on a small scale before implementing it across a whole enterprise, consider using the term “pilot” selectively.

“We try not to say pilot after we decide to scale, we say learning sites,” Barbato said. “We implement to learn. We take those learnings and adapt for the next 10, 12, 15 sites.”

Olson and Stevens agreed.

“We love ditching the term ‘pilots,’” Stevens said.

Changing this language is part of a larger effort to push toward transformative innovation rather than dabbling in experiments that sputter out. 

To this end, it’s also crucial to choose test sites wisely; it’s better to select a community that has some resource constraints rather than the highest-performing property in a portfolio, Olson said. 

Baking scalability into initial contracts with tech partners is also wise.

“If you have to renegotiate to scale, it’s a beautiful opportunity to kill [a project],” Stevens said.

Take a strategic approach to ROI: Spending on technology should be viewed as an investment rather than an expense, and senior living providers must think strategically about the potential returns.

At Revera, Barbato and her team take a comprehensive view of ROI, not only calculating a hard dollar figure, but considering less quantifiable domains such as resident satisfaction and worker engagement.

Zeroing in on the “champion’s ROI” can help focus the goals of a project, Stevens added. For instance, if the company’s chief financial officer is the champion for a particular innovation effort, he or she is likely to privilege a quantifiable financial measure versus a key performance indicator like resident engagement.

Finally, providers must accept that it takes time to realize ROI. Determine short-term metrics that suggest a longer-term result will be achieved, rather than killing a project prematurely because it’s not immediately transforming the bottom line. 

“Be patient,” Olson said. “Financial ROI takes time.”

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