The Innovator's Network: A pilot test of NIATx 2.0

Submitted by: 10/06/2016 by Maureen Fitzgerald

Creating new products and services was the focus of the BHBusiness Innovator’s Network, a NIATx pilot project conducted from March-August 2016.  

The Innovators’ Network was designed for organizations seeking a framework for creating new processes, products, and services. Six organizations participated in the Network, including:

This group tested NIATx 2.0: the NIATx model combined with design thinking tools to develop and execute an innovation

Design thinking, an approach developed by the design firm IDEO, takes a problem apart, generates ideas for solving the problem, selects one, and then does an iterative process of “prototyping” until reaching a solution that solves the problem, often in a completely unexpected way.  

“While the original NIATx model focuses on making small incremental changes to an existing process, NIATx 2.0 is a tool for breakthrough thinking and creating a new process or product,” says Todd Molfenter, NIATx Deputy Director.

The pilot began with a daylong workshop in Las Vegas in March 2016. Molfenter facilitated the workshop with innovation expert Darin Eich. Additional faculty included innovators from and Hospice of Dane County (WI), along with a healthcare venture capitalist.

Workshop attendees took part in a variety of exercises to generate out-of-the box thinking and spark their innovation projects. Following the daylong workshop, participants continued to build their innovation projects with regular webinars and phone support from expert coaches. The coaches, Art Schut (formerly of Arapahoe House in Aurora, Co), Andrew Isham (Innovation Officer at NIATx), and Todd Molfenter, moderated calls on topics such as developing a culture of innovation, organizational change strategies, and how to use NIATx tools.

Thresholds: Using the innovation mindset to launch new services

Thresholds, a human services organization established in 1959, is one of the oldest and largest providers of recovery services and supports for people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders in Illinois. Thresholds offers 32 innovative programs at more than 90 locations throughout Chicago, the adjacent suburbs, and eight surrounding counties. Last year, Thresholds served more than 10,000 clients, with 80% of services delivered in the community.

Until 2015, Thresholds offered only mental health services, along with a variety of related programs for assertive outreach, case management, housing, employment, education, and primary health care.

“The Innovators’ Network came along just a few months before the launch of our outpatient substance use treatments services at selected locations,” says Tim Devitt, Vice President of Clinical Operations.

Devitt comments that the ideas that emerged from the daylong workshop in Las Vegas helped Threshold identify next steps to support the launch of its new programs.

Thresholds Program Director Gabriela Zapata-Alma was also involved in the Innovators’ Network pilot. Zapata-Alma cites the Network’s emphasis on creating a culture of innovation within the organization as being particularly helpful, along with Andrew Isham’s short video on Opportunity Based thinking.  She also referred to the promising practices and forms and templates on the NIATx website regularly.

She explains, “The Innovators’ Network helped us focus on our goal to offer a community-based addiction treatment that serves people in their natural settings, at lower costs, over a longer period of time.”

From the onset it has been our aim to change the view of substance use disorder treatment away from an acute care model to one also focused on long-term recovery,” says DeVitt.

"The Innovator’s Network helped us identify the strategies for conveying this message to payers and important stakeholders." 

Both agree that the coaching calls with Molfenter were a great source of creative interchange that clarified the next steps and strategies to follow in getting their innovation off the ground.  

“With the coaching support we started to take a comprehensive view of our systems,” says Zapata-Alma. “We became especially interested in how to best engage and retain people in treatment, given the low rates of treatment completion nationally and in our state. Through this process, we identified ways to weave evidence-based practices, particularly motivational interviewing, throughout our entire program, beginning with the very first contact."

Resulting Innovations

By the end of the Innovators’ Network, Thresholds had two new treatment locations as well as two new specialized projects in place:

·       A pilot project with the Chicago Police Department’s narcotics division to offer treatment instead of arrest to people with substance use-related crimes, with evaluation conducted by Dr. Harrold Pollack and the University of Chicago’s Health Lab. This project is dedicated to addressing the disproportionate impact of opioids on Chicago’s West Side, and leading a public health response to this epidemic. 

·       A pending contract to post Thresholds staff at a Chicago hospital that does not currently offer chemical dependency services. Threshold staff will conduct integrated screening, assessment, and linkage services for patients with co-occurring disorders or at risk of having a substance use disorder. This project is focused on integrating substance use services into existing medical and mental health care, which will facilitate early detection of substance use disorders and facilitate warm handoffs to substance use treatment providers, including Thresholds Substance Use Treatment Program.

Adds Zapata-Alma, “The Innovator’s Network offered a perfect mix of individualized coaching and support needed for us to take full advantage of the bigger picture concepts of innovation. We loved sharing new insights with our staff, which were especially helpful in developing creative ways to improve our practices, with the ultimate goal being a positive patient experience that effectively meets patient needs.”

Both agree that participating in the Innovator’s Network was a very collaborative process. “It helped us think outside the box and focus on the value we can bring to the stakeholders in the system of care,” says DeVitt. “In addition, the coaching sessions with Todd helped us address early launch problem-solving in a way that gave our innovation goals traction.”

For more information on future offerings of the NIATx Innovators’ Network, contact Andrew Isham at

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