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So You Think You’re Strategic?

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Magazine, August 12, 2008
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The healthcare C-suite talks a lot about strategy. But what constitutes true strategic thinking, and how can leaders be sure that it's taking place at their organizations?

Strategy is one of the most important words in an executive's vocabulary. But when put into practice, it's a word that often involves little more than entering numbers in a spreadsheet and looking at the bottom line. Implementing a process for true strategic planning can be difficult in any industry, but it's particularly challenging in healthcare, where making money and helping people can create conflicting priorities.

"The No. 1 mistake organizations make is they get lost in day-to-day operational detail—day-to-day survival—and they don't step back and say, ‘What are we trying to accomplish and why?'" says Harborne Stuart, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York.

The ability to step back and think long-term doesn't always come naturally. Even good leaders, says Stuart, aren't necessarily good strategists. "The very same skills that make you good at day-to-day management often prevent you from stepping back and thinking more broadly. I know it sounds obvious, but it's really hard to do," Stuart maintains.

So how do leaders connect the dots between isolated decision-making and real planning with a clear vision? What is true strategy, anyway?

It never ends
At many organizations, strategic planning is an annual event that, once completed, sits on a shelf until the next year. St. Louis-based Ascension Health's CEO Anthony Tersigni calls this "flavor-of-the-month" planning. These organizations are quick to make changes to their priorities based on an immediate situations or crisis, and they too quickly abandon their focus when another issue comes along.

"If you look at organizations that have survived for hundreds of years in this country, they have created a strategy; they have tweaked the strategy, but they have stayed true and focused on the strategy over time," Tersigni says.

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