At the Helm

A 'return to normalcy' is at best a long way off. It's time to get comfortable with uncertainty.

by Matthew Stevens, JD and Ken Leonczyk, JD

In the wake of World War I, Warren G. Harding coined the phrase "a return to normalcy." That neologism appears to be the anthem of the current news cycle, with the constant talk of restarting the economy, returning to business as usual, and coming back out of the enforced hibernation of physical distancing.

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Returning to sound financial footing is certainly the front-of-mind pressure facing health care organizations and, for that matter, all businesses. That means reigniting quieted assets, bringing folks back to work, and providing a full range of services to the communities we serve. But, while this is certainly a priority, you'll be operating a different organization, in a different market, with different patients.

Adapt and innovate: Why leaders should get comfortable with uncertainty  

Learning to adapt and innovate has long been a catchphrase in management theory but, in the time of Covid-19, these skills will truly be what set apart the strongest health care leaders and their organizations. Our advice is not to rely on what you think you know and old habits; rather, get comfortable with uncertainty, adapt to it, and be prepared to iterate as you innovate.

We're not saying you haven't been adaptive and innovative thus far. Hospitals across the country have repurposed equipment and made face shields out of almost anything; sourced PPE from new and local suppliers; retrained staff and moved them across the organization, sometimes even across state lines; and paired ambulatory surgeons with medical residents to combine the necessary license with the ICU skillset. And, across the industry, we've ramped up consumer and peer-to-peer telehealth offerings, as the voices of the nay-sayers have grown quiet and found they liked it once they've tried it.

Our point is these efforts are not finished, in fact, they never will be. As a leader, your task is to harness this newfound spirit of ingenuity and distil from it the ongoing innovative culture from the temporary duct tape and bailing wire. None of us has been here before. Beyond broad shifts in the economy and increased unemployment, patients who once relied on you exclusively, may now have found other options. Patients who demanded to be seen face-to-face, are now quite happy with a phone call or video visit. Regulations that have been relaxed may return, they may remain in place, or they may change in yet another new, novel, and frustrating way.

Don't let the opportunity pass

It's a platitude that every crisis is an opportunity. We've all heard that repeated ad nauseum but, surely, it depends on how you use the crisis. Successful leaders will rally their forces toward innovation and build on the connectedness this crisis has created. However, when the urgency passes, it's all too easy to fall back into old habits (only 20% of heart attack survivors change their behaviors, give up smoking, or get more exercise).

Even in the midst of the present chaos your eyes need to turn to the challenges ahead. Celebrate the work that has been done thus far, but begin to reverse engineer that process. How were your previous silos busted? What shared principles allowed individuals and departments to give up something in exchange for the greater good? In lieu of endless meetings of innumerable committees, you've made collective decisions quickly, and were able to pivot when the initial execution didn't achieve the necessary outcomes.

Do not lose that nimbleness; rather, hardwire it into your culture. All these efforts are your template for how your organization works together, and drives to a shared goal. Don't let this internal insight be lost. And don't forget to say "Thank you" along the way.

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