The best time to plant a tree...

December 18, 2013

Kim Johnson, MSEd, MBA
Deputy Director, NIATx
Co-Director, ATTC Network Coordinating Office

“May you live in interesting times” has been described as a Chinese curse, but when I looked it up, I discovered it was really originated in America. So much for my awesome introduction about the curse of interesting times.
We are living in interesting times when it comes to health care delivery in the U.S. Whether it’s a curse or a blessing depends on your perspective, so maybe I can pull in another Chinese concept: yin/yang. Or maybe I should just stick with the American version of a silver lining to every cloud. Interesting times are when innovators thrive and when people who have even a little bit of vision and energy can turn a new idea into a successful business venture. Just look at the iPod. A failing business creates a new device and suddenly it becomes not a failing business but an industry leader. Another new device later, and it has a market value bigger than any other company in the country. Ah, only in America!
Apple might have quietly sunk into oblivion. With a market share of 3-4% before the iPod came out, it was pretty much irrelevant that they made great computers. So Apple innovated and came up with a solution to a problem no one recognized they had. Instead of sitting around wondering why no one bought their great product, they created a new product that not only built an amazing new business, but also wound up creating a new market of buyers for their old product. The interesting times that they were living in (the ability to pack tons of memory into a tiny device, cloud computing that allowed for the creating of itunes) provided an opportunity that only they took advantage of.

You know where I’m going with this, right?  The old funding mechanisms for treatment are going away. They aren’t gone yet, but the new funding mechanisms are in place now and the most innovative people in our field are already starting to exploit them. Time is running out for the rest of us to come up with our version of the iPod that maybe will become the only thing that we sell, but may also be the thing that drives people to buy the great services we produce now. Because let’s face it. Even if you have a waiting list, it’s not like people are lined up at your door to pay for what you have to offer. Sometimes you can give it away, but even when it’s free, a lot of people say, “No thanks.”

How do you become innovative? You need to take some time to focus. Sometimes you wake up from a dream and say “Eureka!”but mostly people create new products and services by spending some time looking at market forces, talking to customers, and if you aren’t or haven’t been a customer of the services you offer, imagining what it would be like to be one and what you would want if you were that customer. What would the magic pill do, and is there a way to do that without the magic pill?
So, here is the commercial part of my blog (we are in America, after all). If you’re reading this, you obviously care about treatment improvement. Improving treatment includes improving the business as well as the clinical operations of your agency. It means designing new ways to improve care via new services, new delivery models, and new partnerships. A SAMHSA-funded training opportunity provides the structure and resources that allow you to achieve this, while doing some serious thinking about the future of your organization. It’s called BH Business: Mastering Essential Business Operations. All you need to bring to it is your time and energy, everything else is provided for you.

To quote another probably fake Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.” The second best is now.

Kimberly Johnson served for seven years as the director of the Office of Substance Abuse in Maine. She has also served as an executive director for a treatment agency, managed intervention and prevention programs, and has worked as a child and family therapist. She joined NIATx in 2007 to lead the ACTION Campaign, a national initiative to increase access to and retention in treatment. She is currently involved in projects with the ATTC Network and NIATx that focus on increasing implementation of evidence-based practices, testing mobile health applications, and developing distance learning programs for behavioral health professionals.

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