Part II: A Great Strategy Needs a Great Champion

By Michelle Mader

In Part I of this two-part series, a project champion was defined and now the focus is on executing the project strategies. Starting off with a well-defined idea gets a project off on the right foot, but only solid execution can ensure real success. This is particularly true in the complex arena of health care design, where projects can take a decade or more to be realized. As important strategic and operational decisions are translated into action, there are many ways in which a project could potentially derail. Garnering the project team’s interest begins as early as the feasibility study, during which the project is vetted. Maintaining interest over the life of a project can be a challenge if care is not taken continue to engage and involve all participants throughout.

In most cases, stakeholders are excited and motivated at the start of a project. The challenge is to maintain momentum long after the kick-off meeting. If the stakeholders find that they are still working on an initiative after five years and the goal still is not in sight, they will just want to be “done” with it. Most people take a lot of pride in being able to complete something, and they become frustrated and apathetic when they don’t have a feeling of accomplishment.

Sometimes the issue with momentum is related to the scale of the initiative; it simply cannot be accomplished in a short timeframe. Setting achievable interim goals provides stakeholders with measurable accomplishments. In other cases, the issue is related to the size and agility of the team tasked with meeting the objective. Unfortunately, too many champions feel compelled to include as many stakeholders as possible in the process for fear of the negative feedback if someone feels left out. As a result, it is harder to schedule meetings, harder to gain consensus, and harder to move things forward. If the implementation team is small and agile, and the strategy does not require input from many other stakeholders, then the team can efficiently move forward.

The fact is, leadership by committee doesn’t necessarily move mountains. A champion must determine the optimal size of the team and identify the key stakeholders required to move the strategy forward; otherwise, it will take too long to develop and complete it. Those organizations that can look at the schedule and cut it in half to be first to market are the most successful.

Getting Back on Track

Unfortunately, too many good strategies get derailed along the way. One common cause is overwhelmed, multitasking staff who are unable to focus on the new initiative. If people feel overwhelmed, then they typically do one of two things — retreat or prioritize — and either way, the initiative loses momentum.  One can identify this by looking for root causes for a loss of momentum and discerning that staff are fatigued. One solution is to stretch out the timeline for an initiative by setting achievable interim goals, rather than setting an overly aggressive end goal that risks staff fatigue and burnout.

Another common cause is the emergence of a “reverse champion” — a boss who disagrees with the priority level of the initiative, or another stakeholder who thinks that a different course of action is equal to or better than the champion’s initiative and therefore doesn’t work to achieve the initiative. Bottom line: if the champion cannot get all the stakeholders to reach consensus on the value and priority of the initiative, then it is likely to go off the rails.

There will always be bumps along the way, and the industry is constantly evolving, so every organization needs effective champions to push initiatives forward and to keep them on track. And when there is a bump, the champion must find a way to persevere or adjust the strategy to get it back on track.

Timely Decision-Making

One tactical approach is to treat the bumps as side issues; that is, do not allow that one opinion to dominate the conversation and everyone’s thought processes and to consume their energy.  Communicate that the stakeholders will find a solution if everyone keeps working and keeps moving forward. Meanwhile, the stakeholders need to “park” that topic, stay focused and keep moving ahead. It is also important to reemphasize that the strategy is directionally correct and the plan is headed in the right direction.

For example, conversations about patient safety goals have a tendency to go off on tangents, explore every opportunity, and, at least at the outset, delve too deeply into the details, such as handrail placement, availability of assistive devices, etc. The champion needs to bring the conversation back to its point, asking, “What are we trying to accomplish? What are we doing on patient flows to ensure patient safety? How is each component making our patients safe?” These kinds of questions move conversations back to the center and enable teams to make timely decisions.

At the end of the day, a champion may have done all the right things, including determining an idea’s viability, formulating a clear strategy and implementation plan, assembling an agile team, making timely decisions and maintaining momentum. Nevertheless, the strategy may fail unless the champion is, fundamentally, a great leader. Healthcare champions, like all great leaders, must be passionate about their ideas and they must believe in the subsequent strategies behind these ideas. Moreover, they must be able to inspire others to follow them in pursuit of the goals that will benefit their patients and their organizations.

Michelle Mader, MBA, MHA, is the president of Catalyst, FreemanWhite.

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