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Seven Keys to Fostering Collaboration in Healthcare

December 17, 2015


collaborationComplex problems require complex collaboration. This means putting together teams of experts from diverse backgrounds. In healthcare, challenges like population health, forming functional accountable care organizations, and re-designing care delivery systems to maximize the quality of care while reducing costs – are complex problems. But the experts tasked with solving these problems often developed their expertise and rose to their leadership roles in professions that value autonomy and may not require or value collaboration. So – you end up in a room with a team of very bright, accomplished individuals, who are now asked to collaborate on a very high level. Research has shown that these groups are actually LESS likely to share knowledge freely, learn from another and share resources. (Gratton and Jackson, Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2007)

This is consistent with my experience. I’ve worked in various capacities with leadership teams in different industries and it’s not uncommon to see healthcare leadership teams struggle with the sort of open, productive collaboration that is common in leading organizations. The tradition of professional autonomy and department and profession-driven autocratic leadership styles, create barriers to open, collaborative dialogue and working styles.

A few concepts that leaders can embrace to build a more collaborative culture:

  1. Don’t collaborate just to collaborate Physician leaders, particularly, may struggle with the “why” of collaboration. In their clinical world, patients get better faster when the system is built around the physician’s expertise and decision-making process, and the faster everyone responds to his or her ideas and instructions, the better. This approach fails in dealing with complex problems. No one leader has enough expertise to solve the problem. Collaboration, getting various perspectives and working through options, is NECESSARY for success. You don’t collaborate because it makes for a more positive work environment for people – you collaborate because it gets results!

  2. Create the “structure” for collaboration One of the greatest criticisms from bright people is that what they perceive as “collaboration” is endless, unproductive yapping. Solid group discussion and facilitation skills are critical for efficient problem solving.

  3. Demonstrate vulnerability – “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” I love this quote from Brene Brown. You have to create an environment where people are comfortable being wrong. It’s the only way that a group can explore creative solutions. It’s pretty powerful when the most senior person in the room is comfortable suggesting an idea and then admitting that the idea won’t work and that it’s perfectly O.K.

  4. Model collaboration – Again, the most senior leaders, those who have plenty of expertise and power, need to demonstrate these behaviors. An example from the Harvard Business Review article, above – department or business unit leaders should occasionally attend, or even lead a colleague’s department meeting – participate, ask questions, learn. Show the team how important it is to share knowledge and the mission, at all levels of the organization.

  5. Appreciate others and show that you value ideas – Don’t dismiss people’s ideas. Even bad ideas can contribute to finding the right solution. People stop participating in the process pretty quickly once they feel their input isn’t valued. Even if your initial reaction is that the idea won’t work – start your criticism with “That’s an interesting idea, but what about [x] issue? How would you address that?”

  6. Actively seek input and criticism – Don’t just be open to criticism and questions – actively seek it. Any group has natural power dynamics. Some people aren’t comfortable challenging the department chair or COO. Those people need to seek input by saying, for instance, “Before we implement this, tell me your concerns or what could go wrong that we haven’t considered.”

  7. Think about and train on specific collaboration skills – Some people are naturally good at collaboration. Their personality is such that they prefer it and are comfortable with it. Others are not. We see this all of the time in our behavioral assessments of front line staff, nurses, physicians and executives. This natural inclination to collaborate, though, does not guarantee that they have developed collaboration “skills.” Some of these can be trained. I always refer back to group facilitation training I took twenty years ago – it’s incredibly powerful. Some of these behaviors and phrasing are critical, for instance in productively resolving conflicts.

When you see highly collaborative teams, it’s not usually by chance:

  1. They think about collaboration as a trait during the selection process. They explore it in a structured and predictive manner during the interview.

  2. They likely evaluate people’s natural collaboration skills/tendencies using a solid, predictive, behavioral assessment like our Select Assessment for Leader Development.

  3. They expressly value collaboration. They define it. They reward it. They talk about. They train on it – again – not because it creates a “nice” work environment (although I can tell you that it does!), but because it contributes to achieving the organization’s goals.

To learn more – see our free whitepaper: 

How Culture Drives or Hinders Hospital Outcomes

Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.