Help Me Grow National Forum: Resisting the Bright Shiny Object – A Systems Approach to Innovation

By: Erin Cornell, MPH

We have two objectives with respect to innovation at the Help Me Grow Annual Forum: first, bringing greater visibility to innovative approaches of Help Me Grow (HMG) affiliates across the country, and second, distinguishing novel system enhancements with the potential to strengthen our mission to advance the early detection of developmental and behavioral concerns in young children, as well as advance the referral and linkage of such children to helpful programs and services.

This year, the former is achieved through the many Forum breakout sessions, as well as an innovation consultation session led in partnership with Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program. The latter is accomplished through an innovation plenary, providing a platform for Forum attendees to learn more about Zero to Three’s HealthySteps model, an innovation that enhances pediatric primary care by embedding developmental specialists into practices to coordinate screening efforts and help families identify, understand and manage parenting challenges.

Help Me Grow National Center, based at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, provides technical assistance and support to affiliates in 28 states that operate 99 Help Me Grow systems. It is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

As a term often considered to be synonymous with new, innovation may commonly refer to a new tool, a new technology, or a new approach. In the early childhood sector in particular, certain innovations may present themselves as bright shiny objects amid a complex and fragmented existing infrastructure. Much as that newness can be refreshing and appealing, it does not follow that an innovation will inevitably be sustainable or diffusible, in which case it demands little, if any, of our attention.

But problems can be wicked, and it can be difficult to conceive of the multi-faceted solutions that address them. Still, just as we don’t buy a new car (which will bring its own set of new problems) when there are ways to fix what is wrong with our existing car, we should be cautious of any new approach that does not take into consideration ways it will need to adapt to be successfully implemented in different contexts. If an innovation doesn’t address a problem that is faced by many different communities and offer ways that the innovation can be embedded in local infrastructure, the luster will fade.

For Help Me Grow affiliates, these reflections are a good example of preaching to the choir: HMG has long embodied the concept of local adaptation, and the emphasis of HMG on how to enhance what already exists in a community to solve a common problem is likely a significant contributor to the success, and scalability, of this work. Nearly 100 HMG implementations across the country inform a dynamic learning community and ensure we have the means to apply what we learn. At this year’s Forum, we thought it a fitting time to reiterate the field’s need for this type of innovation, through the firsthand story of HealthySteps’ evolution.

All this is not to say that Help Me Grow and HealthySteps are not exciting, refreshing opportunities for communities exploring either or both, they certainly are. And we hope the HealthySteps narrative is motivating to all of us working to move the needle to ensure optimal outcomes for young children and families. Further, we hope you appreciate, as we do, the ways that HealthySteps embodies core principles of our, admittedly subjective, criteria for successful innovation: addressing a clear and notable gap; leveraging a broad model definition that enables local adaptation; moving beyond an isolated pilot in a single community; adopting a community-driven, in this case site-driven, approach to model refinement; and perhaps most importantly, being open to model refinement, period!

Isolated initiatives may be “bright and shiny” in that they appear to be a quick and easy solution to a complex problem. But just as there are other attributes to consider beyond brightness (wattage, cost, energy efficiency), so too does system building require us to continually reflect on the many factors that shape our capacity to create and sustain change. So, maybe I’ve come full circle to suggest not that we resist the bright, shiny object, but instead that we seek such bright, shiny objects in the more well-established models that have, over time, institutionalized varying community needs, infrastructure, and priorities to produce innovations that are the most likely to endure.

Erin Cornell, MPH, is the program manager for research, innovation and evaluation at the Help Me Grow National Center.

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