Industry Voices—What’s your strategy for leading in times of uncertainty?

The healthcare industry today is characterized by unprecedented change. Learning how to deal with it can make or break leaders’ careers. (Getty/whyframestudio)

“2018 likely will be distinguished by persistent uncertainty and risk for the industry,” reads a report from PwC Health Research Institute entitled, "Top Health Industry Issues of 2018." 

Jim Austin
Jim Austin (Brown University)

The report lists disruptersranging from the opioid crisis to natural disasters to artificial intelligencethat could undermine the success, even the survival, of healthcare organizations today. All eyes are on healthcare leaders to see how they respond. 

It’s a struggle worth pursuing, since learning how to deal with uncertainty and risk has the potential to improve health outcomes for patients and the sector as a whole.  

“In the face of an unsettled environment, the health industry could come out the other side of 2018 stronger and more creative, helping solve some of the nation’s most pressing health issues and becoming more engaged with their patients and consumers than before,” the report reads. 

To do so, healthcare leaders need a strategy that plans for, even embraces, uncertainty. They need to pair strategic direction with flawless execution to meet short-term goals, but more importantly, they must lay the groundwork now to deal with whatever tomorrow may bring. That means undergoing both incremental and transformative change.

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There’s no question that the industry needs to adapt existing processes to recent regulatory and market realitiesthat’s what improves operations, raises quality metrics, and has a positive effect on patient satisfaction. 

But these days, that’s not enough. 

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In order to truly weather uncertainty, healthcare organizations must also pursue transformative change. That’s what will impact the way healthcare is managed, financed and delivered.

What’s interesting to realize is that incremental change is a necessary precondition for driving transformative developments.  Only by freeing up resources from ever more efficient current operations can organizations invest in transformative initiatives that typically take several years to yield positive returns.  

The other, somewhat harsh, realization is that while incremental changes can be identified through a review of past efforts, transformative responses cannot. In fact, the definition of true uncertainty vs. risk management is that the future will not be similar to the past, possibly not even within the realm of what was foundational in the past.  

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True uncertainty means there is no dataset readily available to define future choices. 

Leading through uncertainty

Regardless of what the future holds, there are two key capabilities healthcare organizations need to adopt to be successful. They must keep current operations going while layering on new or transformative initiatives, so the organization can continue to optimize patient care no matter how the future evolves. And they must constantly work on improving the execution of the new plans. 

To embrace this uncertainty, healthcare leaders should:

  • Develop a portfolio of options that create the capacity for flexibly responding to future changes in the short and longer-term.
  • Drive agreed upon changes, incremental and transformational, throughout the organization, with a clear understanding of why change is needed and who is responsible for which aspects of managing it.
  • Establish environmental monitoring efforts that can alert the leadership to emergent trends sooner rather than later.

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Of course, the specific choices that any healthcare leadership team makes will depend on their institutional vision, strategy, resources, and capabilities. 

But by learning to embrace uncertainty and thrive during times of change, organizations can significantly improve their chances of success in today’s turbulent world of healthcare.

Jim Austin, senior lecturer of healthcare leadership at Brown University has a new book coming out titled, "Leading Transformational Change: Meeting the Needs of Today and the Future.