27/11/2013 06:16 GMT | Updated 27/01/2014 05:59 GMT

Nurturing Innovation Through the NHS Innovation Challenge Prizes

Innovation is a surprisingly difficult word to define. On the face of it, everyone seems to think that they know what it means - but ask them to explain exactly what innovation is, and it becomes very difficult.

The chances are you will get different answers from different types of people. And it's almost certain that you'll get a wide variety of definitions from different sectors and professions.

In healthcare, I would describe innovation as anything that creates new opportunities for improvement or development. As such, innovation can happen anywhere, at any time. It can come from any source and it can take any form. The key is that it has, at its heart, an opportunity to do things better.

This has long been recognised in industry, where creating the right conditions for new ideas to thrive has been hard-wired into the culture of the top performing organisations.

The NHS has a lot of catching up to do to.

That's not to say innovation isn't there - one look at the record numbers of high-quality entries in the last round of NHS Innovation Challenge Prizes confirms that ideas abound at all levels and in all areas of the service.

But the truth is we are still a long way from providing the right conditions for innovation to thrive and permeate across the NHS.

There are a number of reasons for this - many of which revolve around the critical area of leadership.

Firstly, in many cases we try to go too far, too quickly, because organisations fail to set visible, unambiguous goals. Ambitious people, without a clear focus and defined objectives, tend to do too much. It's human nature. The best leaders recognise this and provide a clear set of common objectives around which staff can focus their creative energies.

Secondly, people need to be empowered to innovate. It is not enough for leaders to just give out the right signals and expect a culture of innovation to emerge. They need to 'walk the talk' - by putting in place organisational structures that ensure staff know where to go when they have an idea and that, when they do, they'll be listened to and heard.

The NHS has been built on innovation. Today's great ideas are out there among the front line staff who deliver care every day, recognise the issues and know how to make things better. But all too often good ideas are allowed to wither on the vine due to a lack of development, recognition or and reward.

A third area focuses on nurturing the innovation 'hot-house'. In every organisation there is a core of emerging leaders - junior doctors, graduate trainees, clinical scientists - who possess the ideas, energy and passion to become the engine room for change.

It is this group which drove the NHS Change Day movement last year. From a starting point of a single tweet, these emerging leaders inspired a social phenomenon that led to staff across the NHS and social care making 189,000 separate pledges to improve the services they delivered.

Recognising the potential of these change agents, and providing them with the motivation and the headroom to express themselves, is crucial for innovation to thrive.

Finally, leaders at all levels - clinical as well as managerial - need to rid themselves of the 'better quality costs more' mindset. We know that other sectors are constantly innovating to find ways of improving the quality they offer for less and there is no reason we can't emulate them in health. That's the mentality that our leaders must generate within the NHS.

The good ideas - the new ways of working that will help the NHS remain fit for purpose in challenging times - are out there at the front line. But it will take strong, brave and imaginative leadership to realise their full potential.