We’ve all experienced times in our lives when we have to face a difficult conversation and the angst with which we anticipate its completion. An example might be the nervousness and anxiety of approaching someone to whom we are romantically attracted. Another example would be the dread and sorrow of approaching someone with news we know will devastate them. More relevant to my purpose here are the myriad types of challenging but routine conversations that fall well within those two extremes.
In particular, I am referring to the conversations that are now beginning to take on a true sense of importance and urgency between leadership teams at acute care organizations and post-acute/long-term care (PA/LTC) organizations. Whether driven by regulatory influence (e.g., the Hospital Readmission Reductions Program), new payment models (e.g., bundling pilots), cost containment initiatives or wanting to truly develop a full continuum of care, hospital administrators are getting earnestly engaged in wanting to understand how PA/LTC providers can help them reduce average length of stay and avoidable readmissions.
For healthcare organizations used to operating in silos, discussing subjects like strategic objectives, market positioning and perceived organizational strengths and weaknesses with other healthcare providers – let alone non like-kind providers – can be a most uncomfortable experience. And that discomfort can cause such discussions to be entirely unproductive. Time-wasting in today’s healthcare environment will not only put an organization at a competitive disadvantage – it is a short and narrow path to economic collapse. So the obvious challenge is how to make sure such conversations – or meetings – are both meaningful and productive.
From what I have observed and experienced over the past couple of years as a party to a number of these leadership conversations, there are some basic, yet very important, guidelines you can follow to help ensure the time you spend is productive and of value. I have shared these below and hope that you find them useful.
Create a Statement of Purpose
How many times have you been to a meeting where a colleague says to you under her breath, “why are we here?” A Statement of Purpose should provide a clear articulation of why you are meeting and what must absolutely be accomplished for it to be a valuable use of everyone’s time. For example, a Statement of Purpose might read,
We will meet on <date> for the express purpose of creating a shared understanding of the joint-venture opportunity being considered, the attendant opportunities and risks, and whether both parties have sufficient interest in pursuing the joint-venture further. Evidence of that interest will be satisfied if the parties enter into a Letter of Intent within 30 days following the meeting.
Drill Down on Your Value Proposition
Before meeting, have a very good understanding of why a potential venture or opportunity would be of value to your organization. Define that value nominally (i.e., put it into real numbers). For example, know that if successful, the project will add a net cash benefit of $X annually to your organization. It is typically difficult to quantify economic success given the level of ambiguity at the early stages of discussion, but most executives I have worked with are usually surprised at the analytical specificity achievable when they are forced to work through assumptions and parameters. And it is the very development of those assumptions and parameters that should serve as the meeting content (see next guideline).
Avoid Meeting Until There is Something to Discuss
I had a physician colleague tell me once that thousands of great ideas are presented and discussed at lunch tables across the country every day, yet very few ever make it back to the office – let alone to the type of initiative that merits having two organizations meet to discuss. As Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote, “Good ideas are common – what’s uncommon are people who’ll work hard enough to bring them about.”
Generating interest and enthusiasm for a good idea (e.g., a joint venture) is usually a pretty enjoyable experience, so there is the natural inclination to want to meet and share that idea. In my personal experience – and a lesson I had to learn the hard way – this is where most often ideas go to die. They literally get talked into submission from exuberance over the imagined benefits before they can gain any traction and the support necessary to make it past lunch.
This is why taking the time and effort to develop the business case for a proposed venture before bringing the two parties together is so crucially important. The level of detail should obviously be in sync with the desire to maintain a strong position of negotiation, but both parties must be able to understand the fundamental framework and objective reasoning that merit the time being committed by individuals attending that meeting.
Set Discussion Boundaries
Both parties should know in advance what they are willing and prepared to discuss. As mentioned above, there ought to be a cognizant recognition that while bargaining in good faith should be a given, information is power in negotiation. And while meeting to determine whether a potential venture merits further investment may not represent significant exposure, all too often information is exchanged without due consideration. Of course, having a nondisclosure agreement in place is wise, and the terms and conditions will provide valuable guidance in establishing your conversational boundaries.
Have the Right People There – And Have Them Focused
With the advances made in information technology over the past decade, the ability to communicate with someone has never been easier – yet being heard has never been more challenging. Competing for attention is one of the greatest singular obstacles to advancing organizational initiatives today. It often requires a fair amount of dogged commitment, humility and political savvy to coordinate schedules in a way that gets the right people at the meeting in a frame of mind to concentrate on the meeting content. But it is an effort that cannot be minimized without jeopardizing success.
Consider Using a Facilitator
Having a productive meeting often depends on the ability to stay focused on the deal points and ensuring you have the right levels of individual participation. Personality types often dictate that level of participation, and without an objective means of balancing certain types, a few people can dominate the discussion – even if they aren’t the ones empowered to make decisions.
Having a clearly defined agenda and a third-party facilitator that is familiar with your industry and business can add significant value. That individual should have experience in effectively managing discussions and debate, ensuring that key concepts are introduced at just the right moments and have the ability artfully keep participants focused on the primary elements that comprise the Statement of Purpose.
Environmental trends and drivers are pushing acute and PA/LTC leadership teams to accelerate their interest in partnering on market initiatives that require collaborative efforts. From the very beginning, the success of such initiatives depends on the ability to engage in meaningful and productive conversation. By having the discipline and foresight to follow some basic guidelines those leadership teams can help avoid wasting valuable time.