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Jack be nimble! I find myself thinking about the nursery rhyme phrase lately when I'm explaining the demands facing today's healthcare leaders. The current challenges facing the industry — increased pressure on margin, the need to rebuild infrastructure and the need to adapt to a changing marketplace — make for a formidable set of candlesticks. Simply put, leaders can no longer force-fit the realities of today’s healthcare environment into yesterday’s mold.

Like most nursery rhymes, "Jack be Nimble" has ancient origins, originating in a pagan tradition wherein a person's ability to jump over a burning candle without extinguishing the flame was a harbinger of good luck. So how can today’s healthcare leaders clear the flames of today’s unfamiliar obstacles?

The answer is agility. Agile leaders adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Today’s successful healthcare leaders are able to maintain margins and not compromise quality patient care. They collaborate to form relationships and partnerships as they create care paths. They get results with and through every caregiver and stakeholder in a way that values each idea and contribution.

Based on the work of Lombardo and Eichinger [i], the secret is “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” The management performance experts call it “learning agility.” For most people, developing this skill requires focused and intentional practice of the ability to lead in ambiguous situations. 

For learning leaders, then, the challenge is even bigger: How do you intentionally design a learning experience that builds agility, which by necessity can't rely on standardized flow and predictability?

These four tips can help healthcare organizations create a more methodical and repeatable, yet agility-focused, learning process:

1. Place leaders in experiences that are unfamiliar and outside their normal areas of expertise.   For example, assign clinical caregivers to lead non-clinical strategic projects. A senior nursing director could take the lead on a process improvement project to decrease wait times in the Emergency Department.

2. Provide resources for leaders to keep a lookout for what they are noticing about the situation.   Help them understand context, who the stakeholders are and what deliverables are expected. These are basic project management concepts that many leaders have not formally used. Offer these resources to help them avoid making assumptions or overlooking critical information.

3. Build in time for leaders to pause to think and reflect about what they are learning.   This could take the form of a mid-project status review to surface what is and isn’t working, or regular journaling. A good coach or mentor is also particularly helpful here to help employees process what is happening.

4. Make sure they master the learning.   Repetition is key to fostering the ability to be more agile in unfamiliar situations. Identify ways for leaders to keep practicing their new insights to use in other situations.

Stop for a minute and think about what your company's specific new candlesticks might be. What can you do to help your leaders hurdle them smoothly and gracefully? With repeated practice, good luck is sure to ensue!

[i] Eichinger, R. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Capretta, C. C. (2010). FYITM for learning agility. Minneapolis, MN:  Lominger International:  A Korn/Ferry Company.

Photo: Shutterstock