Marianne McPherson

What Rosie Revere, Engineer Teaches Me About Innovation

Posted February 19, 2014 by Marianne McPherson, PhD, MS

My daughter loves to read Rosie Revere, Engineer, a children’s book about a young girl who dreams of and practices at becoming an engineer. Rosie nearly gives up that dream when she’s laughed at by some of the people closest to her after her first few inventions aren’t first-time successes. But with some encouragement from her great-great-aunt Rose (homage to Rosie the Riveter), young Rosie keeps at her innovating and engineering, building a flying machine called a heli-o-cheese-copter. In the process, she comes to realize that:

“Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.“
I’ve been thinking about innovation a lot lately, in large part due to a renewed commitment at NICHQ to be a hub for creating and spreading innovations. I am so excited about this commitment because I know that new ideas and new approaches—and building them together—will help create a world in which all children achieve their optimal health.
“But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight…”
Further advancing my excitement for innovation, NICHQ was recently awarded a cooperative agreement by HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau to lead the national expansion of the Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (CoIIN) to Reduce Infant Mortality. This initiative provides a platform to transform children and their families’ lives, drawing on quality improvement, collaborative improvement, and innovation to do so. We feel privileged to join with an incredible group of partners and build on the work of CoIIN participants in the first 19 states in which this initiative is already underway. As we spread the effort to up to 31 new states and eight territories, we are honored to hold on tight to the tricky question (as young Rosie would say) of how to reduce infant mortality, improve birth outcomes, and address health disparities in this country. We hold onto that question because we are committed to the vision of a nation in which every child celebrates his or her first birthday. (If you are, too, and especially if you’re already working in this area, please comment on this blog post so we can follow up.)
Baby LukeBaby Luke

One of the reasons that I hold onto this question is that my cousin, Luke, never got to see his first birthday. In 2010, 24,586 families experienced the life altering heartbreak that my family experienced. We can do so much better. For every family to celebrate their child’s first birthday, we will learn and work in partnership, we will improve where the path is clear, and we will innovate where it is not.
“You did it! Hooray! It’s the perfect first try! This great flop is over. It’s time for the next!”
I invite you to join our conversation and join in our work. As Rosie knows—she has a closet full of parts for building her inventions—and as Steven Johnson writes in Where Good Ideas Come From, “the trick is to get more parts on the table.”

What might that look like, exactly? To start, NICHQ will be putting more of our parts (and combinations of parts) on the table externally in, for example, more blog posts like this one. We invite you to join the conversation and help us make the next great flying machine (tell us if we’re flopping and how to fail forward!). Bring some parts to put on the table (maybe even guest blog about them!), follow us on social media like Twitter (@NICHQ, @mariannephd). Our table is not just the one in our office conference rooms. That table is in our conversations with those who, like we at NICHQ, are committed to a world in which all children achieve their optimal health. We recognize that those parts may come from healthcare, or from architecture, or from children’s literature. So please, come to our table and join the conversation, and invite others to join it, too.

“It crashed. That is true. But first it did just what it needed to do. Before it crashed, Rosie…Before that…It flew!”
As Rosie taught me, getting parts on the table means that some combinations of those parts won’t work, either on the first try or ever. Just as I’m committed to NICHQ putting more parts on the communal table as we iterate and innovate, I’m committed to us sharing what combinations haven’t worked. In the months that I’ve been leading our innovation initiative and learning a TON as I go, I’ve held onto a few things:
  • Innovation is rare. Because it’s so rare, it’s both a destination and a journey. And that journey involves a lot of great flops on the way to the flying machine.
  • Innovation is not a solo flight. (See above re: parts on the table in public!)
  • Innovation has a lot of buzz, but it’s buzz worth striving for, especially if it means that just one more child will have her first birthday, that just one more family will have a safe outdoor space for their child to play, or that just one more adolescent receives timely treatment for substance abuse.
So, what is your heli-o-cheese-copter? What is the next one we’ll build together? Join us at the table, and please bring some parts.


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