Making Innovation Happen: My Epiphany Following the TPP Conference 2016

Date: July 29th, 2016

Genevieve Martínez-García

Last week, about 1,000 people from all corners of the nation congregated in Baltimore at the biennial Federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Conference to collaborate, learn, and grow. Collaboration was the theme throughout the three-day conference, but for me the term “innovation” resonated strongly in every session I attended and every professional interaction I had. For me, innovation is more than just a buzz word. It means thinking about new angles to approach a topic, to think about the future when developing programs and products. It requires honoring the past and the present to know what works, and applying that to a new and rapidly changing social landscape.

Thinking outside the 6-session, group-based box.

One big take away from the conference last week is that the field is hungry for new things. We have come to realize that the traditional group setting, face-to-face interventions work well for many young people and in some settings but may not reach all youth.  Many are expensive to implement and some interventions should be complemented with other products and programs to meet people’s diverse needs. So, how do we get out of the box? In order to innovate beyond the classroom setting, we need to ask ourselves…WHAT do youth want and need?, WHERE can we reach them?, HOW can we reach them? WHO will reach them?

Does this mean mobile technology? Maybe, but not necessarily…although, youth are on their mobile devices ALL the time, so it may answer the question of WHERE to reach them. Although technology is definitely considered innovative, innovative products are not necessarily technology-based.

One brainstorming activity the Innovation grantees asked us to do was to think about innovative products with a $1 dollar budget and a $1 million dollar budget. I found this exercise useful because allowing your brain to think freely without constraints of cost, effort, or past performance experience helps to generate new ideas that can be shared and processed with your team.

Not all products have to be life changing.

When we think of products or intervention development, we may immediately think of new programs designed based on a broad logic model that takes us from a wide range of inputs to all possible behavioral determinants to an ambitious goal—programs designed in ways that can be rigorously evaluated. But, do ALL products have to be this comprehensive and complex? Lots of folks I spoke to want to share with their youth simple yet medically-accurate products after a clinic visit, or during a group presentation. They want conversation starters, attention grabbers, awareness raisers. They are not looking for a comprehensive, “no content left behind” style of intervention. They want simple videos, graphics, and youth-relevant resources that help solidify information they have already been exchanging, or start a conversation about difficult and sensitive issues. When thinking about innovation, don’t necessarily think big and grandiose. Think effective, efficient, and relevant. After all, youth count on solid programs which are the cornerstone of their sexual health education, as well as health promoting resources, policies, and spaces that support them in decision making.

Innovative interventions call for innovative evaluations.

Does everything we produce really need to be rigorously evaluated? Coming from a researcher and evaluator, this statement might seem shocking. However, as a researcher and evaluator currently evaluating two mobile apps, the traditional evaluation process is very frustrating and slow. Let’s look at the typical timeline of events. First, we engage the youth to design an awesome, cutting-edge, super innovative product. We apply for funding; we wait and wait and wait; then we spend a year planning and tweaking; then we spend three plus years gathering data and voilá!, we end up with an effective product and make it to the repository of evidence-based programs. Mission accomplished!

Then we spend some time marketing and disseminating it to the field to find out from the youth that our content is “sooooo 2016!”; to find that our edgy, youthful dialogues are dated; that the social media platform we based our intervention on is no longer popular; that the youth have moved on. This is what innovations face when adhering to traditional evaluation gold standards. But the reality is that youth culture, technology, and communication channels change so fast that what is relevant today, may not be relevant tomorrow. Holding a great idea hostage for 5 years can mean the death of the idea even before we are able to share it with the world.

We need to apply our own innovative thinking to the evaluation process so we can still innovate responsibly­—meaning disseminate products informed by evidence, based on solid theoretical constructs, and driven by objective. But we also need to move products to the market before their expiration date.  Does that mean a shorter follow up evaluation period? Different research design options depending on the type of product? Controlled distribution of the product without contaminating the study participants?

If the field is determined to innovate their programs and products, the evaluation and performance measures components cannot be left behind. Let’s innovate responsibly and evaluate appropriately to ensure that youth have a access to diverse and relevant resources that can quickly respond to their rapidly changing needs.

How do you plan to innovate? I would love to hear your thoughts and musings.

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About the Author

Dr. Genevieve Martínez-García, Director of Innovation and Research at Healthy Teen Network, is a health educator committed to bringing innovation to the field of sexual and reproductive health. She has over 14 years of experience researching adolescent sexual and reproductive health issues such as mHealth, fertility, social determinants of health, cultural and economic barriers to health care access among minority populations, health media literacy, characteristics of programs for pregnant and parenting teens, and Latino youth pregnancy intentions.

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