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Lessons on Weathering Uncertainty Abound at ACHE This Year

Analysis  |  By Julie Auton  
   March 05, 2019

The theme of Monday's sessions highlight an industry rife with upheaval and disruption and how successful executives can navigate the stormy waters.

CHICAGO – The overriding messages at the American College of Healthcare Executives 2019 Congress on Healthcare Leadership on Monday centered on how healthcare leaders can welcome new thinking and action in the face of change and disruption.

Platypus Labs Chairman and Cofounder Josh Linkner kicked off the Congress, where thousands of healthcare executives have gathered to learn strategies to thrive in a mercurial environment rife with challenges.

Linkner's talk, "Being Innovative in a Time of Rapid Change," imparted these tips about driving progress through creative ideas:

  • Every barrier can be broken. Think outside the box for solutions to complex problems.
  • Video killed the radio star. Defy tradition to generate new revenue streams.
  • Break the rules to get the jewels. When resources are scarce, leverage human creativity.
  • Seek the unexpected. Instead of expected approaches, embrace bold and unorthodox ideas.
  • Fall seven times; stand eight. Rise back from adversity with grit and determination.

This focus on inventive thinking and fresh ways of operating carried into Monday's sessions as well, covering a healthcare environment undergoing rapid technological advancement, an aging and diverse population, major disruptors, payment and reimbursement restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, health policy shifts, cost increases, and more.

To survive in this atmosphere, executives must be prepared to lead in the midst of upheaval and build a team who can function effectively in this new and changing reality, attendees were told.

Thriving in VUCA Environments

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) are the new norms for healthcare, said Gail Marcus, assistant dean and assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University School of Healthcare Business in Boston.

"Having to solve problems without complete information requires individuals to think outside the box and break the rules," Marcus said in a session she co-led with William Goodman, MD, FCCP, chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs for Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.

That problem-solving approach means leaders who aim to inspire transformation need to refrain from reflexively saying, "That's not our job; that's not the way we're doing it," Marcus added.

As an example, Marcus and Goodman cited a New Hampshire firefighter's inventive approach to handling a drug addict. The idea ultimately had a positive impact on addressing the state's opioid crisis, but it took his supervisor to embrace the idea to enable its success.

Related: Learn More About Our Invitation-Only CEO Exchange — September 25-27, 2019

Goodman said a drug-addicted person presented at a fire station. When the case was deemed medically stable, the firefighter took the patient to a primary care service provider, rather than to a hospital emergency department. The simple change was later adopted throughout New Hampshire as part of the "Safe Station" initiative that has reduced both overdose deaths and unnecessary ED utilization.

"If the firefighter had worked for someone who said, 'That's not the way we do it,' then that program would have gone away," Goodman said.

Leaders need to bring their staff along in the process. The session shared these considerations for building nonclinical talent that can thrive in the midst of VUCA: 

  1. Drive and manage innovation and transformation by empowering staff. Catholic Medical Center established a self-directed interdisciplinary team—an "Imaginovation Committee"—that engages both clinical and nonclinical staff to generate new solutions and improvements. Goodman said the committee didn't conceive any ideas for major improvements, but the significance of their work sent a message to the organization that this kind of thinking works, is valued and can be fostered.
  2. E-health and the "Internet of Things" demand new roles and skills to leverage technology to improve care delivery and the patient experience. New health system roles have emerged in recent years, including data scientists to synthesize volumes of data into meaningful insights for decision-makers, and data "visualizers," who can make fashion the data into convincing arguments. Chief experience officers are also popping up at hospitals and health systems in response to consumerism. Marcus suggests considering hiring staff with a retail background, or those with strong customer service skills.
  3. In the new environment, "soft skills" are as important as content knowledge. Leaders need to hire people who think this way, as well as create a safe space for effective communication, cultural sensitivity, collaboration and negotiation, self-awareness and feedback, curiosity, agility, risk-taking, and resilience.
  4. Hire the necessary talent and train for the critical skills to move your organization forward. Recruit the right people, including those from other industries. Use existing staff with the appropriate skills to help recruit. Be a destination employer. In addition, develop internal talent by providing high-potential individuals with training and experience to build these skills; and utilize simulations to help staff and managers build agility. Also important: Retain employees by providing development opportunities via involvement in industry forums, training, and virtual communities.

Marcus closes with this advice: "Match volatility with vision; match uncertainty with understanding; match complexity with clarity; match ambiguity with agility … and establish an environment where people are comfortable."

The session gave Ruth Bash some thoughts for her role as vice president and chief culture officer of  Children's Specialized Hospital/RWJBarnabas Health in New Brunswick, New Jersey: "This is a refreshing look at the skills and competencies we should be looking at in our new hires and next generation of leaders," she said.

Editor's note: This piece was edited by HealthLeaders' Steven Porter.

Julie Auton is the leadership programs editor for HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: Chicago: Panoramic view of Chicago city with Cloud Gate Sculpture in downtown and in foreground. (Editorial credit: Aberu.Go /


Lead by example. Be comfortable and embrace the VUCA environment.

Hire from industries that have undergone changes and survived, and look for soft skills over content knowledge.

Provide opportunities for staff to build and practice these skills to sustain what you're doing.  

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