During an acute crisis, leaders (and their teams) often get a burst of mobilizing energy.
But it’s hard to sustain that “all hands on deck” energy over the long term.
Matt Cornner, faculty member for Advisory Board Fellowship, explained on Radio Advisory’s episode about navigating complexity, “When crisis starts to recede, purpose is less clear, and constraints are less clear. We're lulled into this illusion that normalcy is possible, stasis is possible” — an illusion that can be dangerous in a complex reality.
Constant change can be tiring, but healthcare is complex and demands constant adaptation. There are often limits to best practice or technical expertise. New problems arise that require experimentation and novel solutions. The challenge is: How can healthcare leaders mobilize teams to remain adaptive when they too want to return to normal?
3 questions leaders need to ask themselves
1. Am I keeping my organization’s purpose at the center of my actions?
Leaders must center everything they do on their organization’s mission. This sense of purpose is an indispensable tool for staying focused on the hard but necessary tasks at hand.
Consider the formation of Ballad Health. In 2018, two struggling health systems faced financial challenges due to unsustainably low inpatient bed utilization. Failure to act would mean the closure of these essential hospitals. But merging the two systems into Ballad led to extremely hard choices, including the closure of one of the area’s NICUs.
This decision was extremely challenging because of intense community opposition. There were regular protests for almost a year. But leaders were united by the purpose of creating a new health system that was viable and could serve the community — to keep the doors of the new health system open.
Lisa Carter, who was CEO of one of the hospitals at the time of the merger, shared on a Radio Advisory episode, “It was a challenge mentally to just sustain that level of intensity. … [I]t wasn't just a couple of weeks, it was literally months and months of … and trying to come up with solutions and having conversations and really coming under attack.” Carter shared how her sense of purpose sustained her, saying “I never wavered from that purpose.”
Leaders must create that shared sense of purpose even when their teams are not in crisis.
2. Do I create an environment that encourages my team to take risks and experiment?
Leaders should foster a climate that encourages people to take risks and try out new ideas without fear of punishment for failure, which requires a sense of psychological safety. Leaders should ask: Is it good enough to try and safe enough to fail? Organizations that can experiment will survive and thrive in times of immense change and complexity.
Karen Šulek, a healthcare leadership expert, shared in a Radio Advisory podcast that “it’s actually certainty that’s bad for us — because certainty breeds stagnation.”
Experiments are especially critical to tackle challenges with no known solutions or best practices. However, striking the right balance between experimentation and guardrails is key.
Too much experimentation with too few guardrails can lead to costly failures, but too little experimentation can lead to stasis, which is a larger threat, especially in times of rapid change. Teams that don’t experiment miss out on opportunities.
3. How can I resist the urge to return to stasis?
Leaders in times of complexity must create the conditions that enable people to stay engaged in the process of constant change. This is no easy task. The temptation is to retreat to stasis — to find a “new normal” — where things are less complex.
Take an out-of-industry example: the Southwest Airlines holiday season meltdown of 2022. Southwest, originally an industry disruptor, hadn’t innovated on its scheduling and staffing systems. While winter weather started the problem, it was poor workforce planning that kept Southwest from returning to normal operations.
Southwest’s failure to innovate on their scheduling led to a system-wide grounding of planes during peak travel season. “The parallels to healthcare are obvious,” writes Eliza Dailey, an Advisory Board researcher. She adds that healthcare executives need to recognize the current workforce challenge and “consider transformative changes to staffing models, role design, and work environments.”
Leaders should repeatedly ask themselves how to increase their own (and their teams’) capacity for change. To do this, leaders must expose their teams to external and internal threats while also cultivating a trusting, safe environment.
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