Breaking down silos is challenging. Yet for the healthcare sector, it is an essential element for producing a higher quality of patient care, innovative healthcare solutions, and more efficient use of resources. A fragmented healthcare system is being replaced by a network that leverages cross-boundary teams, spanning disciplines, professions, and functions. How can healthcare professionals and managers best learn to collaborate with diverse others across this network? Through practice, coaching, and feedback. Action learning combines these three elements and thus is a powerful method for developing collaborative healthcare leadership

Action learning brings together teams of peers from different functions, professions, locations, and levels. These teams are tasked with designing and carrying out a strategic project for the organization or community. In other words, they are stretched by a real boundary-spanning assignment. Examples of projects include:

  • Developing and implementing tactics to increase the number of employees who are actively engaged with a primary care physician.
  • Partnering with a grocery store chain to bring online grocery shopping to citizens in a housing project for a reduced fee, allowing these resident to have fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to their neighborhood.
  • Designing and piloting an onboarding process to help newly hired physicians quickly learn organizational processes, understand the broader history and culture of the healthcare system, and feel welcomed into that system.

At the same time, teams are supported to maximize their learning. Each team’s executive sponsor helps them navigate the organization, serves as a sounding board and advisor, and holds the team accountable for deliverables. Each team’s learning coach interjects questions and observations, builds in time for reflection, and encourages the use of tools for collective learning. The action learning project is embedded in a formal leadership development program that teaches strategies for effective collaboration, provides individual feedback and coaching, and helps individuals transfer learning gained from the project to their ongoing work in the organization.

Here’s what my colleagues and I have learned about maximizing the impact of action learning projects for healthcare leaders:

  • Require the project team to make something happen (e.g., create a pilot, run an experiment, spread a best practice, form a new partnership). The benefits of taking action and learning from that experience are missing if they simply study an issue and make recommendations.
  • Keep the project’s scope and objectives broad rather than clearly defined by a senior executive. This enables teams to experience what it takes to develop a shared understanding of and commitment to a common objective.
  • Make work on the project a part of each team member’s regular job rather than an added responsibility. It is real work that benefits the organization, so treat it that way. If necessary, take something off their plate and give it as a developmental assignment to someone else.
  • Strengthen relationships among team members by giving them space to help each other with their on-the-job issues and to relax and get to know each other. These relationships become the most valued outcome of the experience and serve them well as they continue to grow as collaborative leaders.

We have seen first-hand the benefits of action leaning in the healthcare sector. People with different expertise, beliefs, identities, priorities, and status have found common ground, integrated their knowledge, respected different perspectives, and together delivered better results that have led to healthier communities.

Want to learn more? Join me October 23-24 at the 2017 ATD Healthcare Summit for the panel session: The Role of Talent Development in Healthcare.