Smashing Spotlight: Caitlin Morrison, Senior Strategist
Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Caitlin Morrison, Senior Strategist, to talk shop, how her background in epidemiology helps her navigate the world, the importance of remaining teachable no matter where one is at in their career, and how the pendulum swing that is currently taking place in healthcare will one day revolutionize the industry.
You’ve joined Smashing after working in healthcare for many years. In fact, your background is in epidemiology. How does that background benefit you in your role as a strategist?
From my perspective, epidemiology might be one of the most useful methodologies for navigating the world. Essentially it is the study of causation. By studying it I am able to ask myself: “How can we say that A causes B? What evidence would we need to make that conclusion?” This skill is helpful in my role as a strategist because we are usually trying to understand the cause and effect between two things and what is the most meaningful way to intervene.
Also, by studying epi methods I am able to easily understand the validity of a conclusion, or how to validly arrive at a conclusion, which is important when helping clients solve for a particular pain point.
Having worked in the world of healthcare, what is important for innovators to keep in mind as they are looking to make a positive difference with technology?
That’s a great question! I think it’s important when entering any space to understand that there are probably already some very smart people doing great work. So you have to honor, acknowledge, leverage, and/or collaborate with their good ideas.
I think innovation in healthcare is especially tricky. There are very rigid parameters, the consequences are different (people can die!), and there is minimal cost transparency. It’s important for innovators to be knowledgeable and thoughtful about the existing constraints in the space they are entering.
What’s been the most interesting – or rather unexpected – thing you’ve discovered having moved into tech? Any surprises? Any delights? Anything the collective industry can work on?
Initially, I thought that tech companies start projects by identifying what tech they want to use. For example, I imagined clients would come to us and say “help us do AI!” and as a design and innovation agency we would help create an AI-based solution. But what I have learned is that we actually start with a problem, and then talk to relevant stakeholders (a.k.a. people), and then choose the best solution. I really like that we design and build with purpose.
As far as things to work on, when I was in the public sector accessibility, diversity, and social justice were always a part of the conversation. For example, leadership either acknowledged their lack of diversity or incorporated social justice into their strategic plan. While it seems like some areas of tech are having those conversations, everyone should be committed to creating a culture of equity.
You’ve spent a lot of time working and living on boats. What do you bring from that experience to your current work as a strategist?
Saying “a lot of time” is probably an exaggeration; I stopped shortly after I realized I am a terrible sailor. Ultimately, I think the most important thing I learned from boats is that while there are infinite ways to do something wrong, there are a thousand ways to do something right. That goes for docking a tall ship on the Hudson river (yay Clearwater!) or making dinner for the whole crew.
This experience taught me the balance between being a teammate and being a leader. Every teammate has the responsibility to speak up when something seems like it’s not working or not going well (or worst-case scenario, something bad is about to happen). At the same time, each team-member needs to respect the final call of the person that’s currently in charge of the boat (or project). The team doesn’t benefit when someone goes rogue. We are all in this together.
You’re a Virgo and you’ve uncovered that we have a lot of Virgos on Smashing’s Strategy team. Without getting into a discussion of the validity of astrology, why do think that is? What type of person thrives in this role and in this department?
Strategists (and Virgos) are critical and analytical. They need to make order out of things. That’s essentially what this job requires. Looking at the Strategy team, you can see we are all pretty different and each one of us has a unique professional background. Each person can jump between the micro picture and the macro picture in rapid succession. We are able to develop frameworks to apply to new and nuanced problem spaces. We quickly and easily see patterns. Once we have the pattern figured out, we each have a strong sense of how to get to the solution.
The other thing about our team is we value delivering the best solution. That means we like to recruit help from each other and every department in the agency. It’s the wisdom of combined superpowers that helps us get where we need to go.
You seem to be very comfortable working in a business as ambiguous as ours. What advice do you have about being comfortable with the unknown?
My one piece of advice would be to embrace humility. That word sometimes sparks funny feelings, so I had to find the definition that resonated most with me. The definition I like is “remaining teachable.” To me that means being curious and feeling comfortable asking questions. Questions and an open mind are the key to navigating the unknown.
Many industries these days are undergoing digital transformation, healthcare being a primary one. Why is healthcare so primed for this change?
It’s much like a pendulum. Healthcare swung so far in the direction of “more-interventions-means-better-care” that we have ended up with an expensive system that no one is quite happy with. It has started to swing the other way as evidenced by an increased emphasis on patient-centered care, the increased acceptance of alternative medicines, and the transition to a value-based payment system. These are great trends and there are some amazing providers, but healthcare in the U.S. still has a long way to go.
As the population ages more and more, people will be touching the healthcare system, either as a patient or a family member. As more people experience the system, the discontent with the current model will increase. Demand for a new way will overtake any remaining hesitation towards a new system.
You are a strong proponent of evidence-based decision making. Tell us why that is important, and why we all need to care.
All of us are inherently biased. We observe the world around us and develop judgements and opinions based on our experience. Given that an individual cannot experience every event from multiple perspectives at all times, our conclusions will be biased. Evidence-based decision making helps us to make choices that have less bias. This is important for my own daily functioning, but even more important when we think about policies and procedures. I used to work in evidence-based medicine. People would often ask me “but if it’s not evidence based, then what is it based on?” And believe me, you don’t want an answer to that question.
We’ve heard that you, more than anything, love to receive practical gifts; great socks, hiking gear…that kind of stuff. What is the next practical gift that sits atop your wish list and why?
Bike fenders! Winter is coming and now that I commute by bike I need to be prepared. Also, more socks! The dryer eats them.
Last, but not least, what was your last truly smashing Idea?
To leave academia for innovation!