6 Survival Skills for Healthcare's "Era of Disruption"

Ask any healthcare leader to name something that isn't changing in their world these days, and they'd be hard pressed to come up with an answer. Technologies are evolving so quickly that equipment and IT infrastructure can be nearly out of date before they are fully functional. Brick-and-mortar healthcare delivery is increasingly threatened by breakthroughs in virtual medicine. Major regulatory changes are underway involving reimbursement, accountability and quality. The very structure of the industry — particularly for care providers — is shifting daily as more and more  players merge, consolidate and innovate.

The specter of wholesale disruption in healthcare is no longer a storm cloud gathering on a distant horizon. That cloud is directly overhead and hospitals and other providers are caught in a perfect storm of chaos, complexity and in many cases, survival.
The only comforting thought, if there is one, is that everyone is in the same boat, facing the same challenges. No business leader has had to deal with the scale and pace of change facing healthcare today since the Industrial Revolution, and no organization is completely prepared to deal with it.

In the coming years, the advantage will swing to those healthcare companies that achieve agility in adapting to the constancy of change and develop new skills for dealing with disruption. The challenge is to find ways that you can adapt your organization while still conducting daily business and serving your customers. Here are six survival skills that you may find useful.

1. Get a new rule book. The rules of road that guided leadership decisions in past decades —those generally dependent on long-term strategic planning skills and managing uncertainty — are no longer valid. Ambiguity reigns supreme in a disruptive world, and you need a rule book and adaptable workforce that will help your organization remain stable while adjusting to constant "audibles" at the line of scrimmage.

2. Prepare for any environment. Human beings are one of the most widely dispersed creatures on this planet. Why? Because our intelligence and adaptability allows us to survive and even thrive in a wide range of environmental conditions. Your mindset as a business leader should be creating a framework that will allow your organization to be successful no matter what happens in the future. Become an intelligent and adaptable organization. Get really good at watching upcoming trade winds, then interpreting and reacting quickly. Set guidelines that allow flexibility and entrepreneurship but reinforce consistency and execution.

3. Strengthen your commitment to a common purpose. Leadership teams in healthcare organizations have gotten increasingly disconnected from a common purpose as the chaos in the world has driven them to be more and more focused on short-term objectives and responding with tunnel vision to disruption. Now is the time to go back and review the common purpose of your organization. Incorporate awareness of that common purpose into everything from strategic planning to how you interact with patients and customers.

Reinforcing alignment around a common purpose is not just an academic exercise. It gives people who will never set foot in your board room the knowledge that will help them do the right things at the right time on the front lines of delivering care. And if you want to be adaptable and agile, you have to accept the fact that more and more decisions will be made farther and farther away from that board room. Knowing that both ends of the spectrum — and every piece in between — is aligned to a common purpose will increase your trust, and improve agility while maintaining consistency.

4. Match your social architecture to your business needs. In 1999, Jack Welch was asked to explain why GE was so successful despite having such diverse businesses under the same corporate roof. He attributed it to two factors: a common operating system and a common social architecture. Anyone who worked for GE in those years knows what he meant by the latter ingredient: there were very powerful norms of behavior around issues like how people and groups learned from each other and how they interacted in ways that drove continuous improvement and business excellence. You need to make sure that your social architecture is going to be an asset as business conditions in healthcare get even more chaotic.

5. Benchmark outside your industry (or at least market niche). There are so many new things that healthcare organizations have to master quickly that leaders are constantly asking "Who is already good at this? Who can we learn from?" The answer is that there probably are solutions to many of your challenges, but it's unlikely they exist in your specific sector. For example, one company that was building a new hospital benchmarked its patient services against the quality of customer service delivered at organizations like Disney or the Ritz-Carlton.

6. Learn from the disruptors. No matter what form of healthcare organization you are running today, your primary competition tomorrow may not be similar providers in your area. It's more likely to be the mini-clinics that can be found in some drug stores, or online virtual services like Stat Doctors, or mobile health services like White Glove. Your choice is to either cede the challenged segments of your market to the "disruptors," or be aggressive in learning from what they are doing and incorporating into your organization.

Despite the major changes in healthcare, it's surprising how many organizations seem to be trapped by inertia. You can no longer afford to operate on autopilot, even if you are successful today. Becoming more adaptable is a big challenge, but the pursuit of adaptability can reignite passion and creativity in your workforce. It may also be the only way you're going to survive the storm.

Mr. Wince is  CEO of Guidon Performance Solutions and is widely recognized as an innovator and thought leader in the areas of business performance improvement, cultural transformation, strategy development and deployment and leadership development. He has advised hospitals, healthcare institutions and world-class organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, the American Red Cross, the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic and has been working with many regional hospitals to help them transform themselves to meet the tsunami of new demands, regulations and pressures to streamline and improve patient outcomes. Prior to founding Guidon, Mr. Wince held senior leadership positions within world-class organizations, including J.P. Morgan Chase, Freudenberg-NOK and Lear Corp.

More Articles on Healthcare Leadership:

Leadership Check-Up: Are You a Values-Based Leader?
Physicians and Hospital Leaders Must Unite to Improve Quality and Cost Effectiveness

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