Healthcare Strategy Lesson From Gettysburg

GThis past weekend my son and I traveled to Gettysburg to partake in the 150th Anniversary celebration. It was our third trip together there, the last being four years ago when he was six. I have been there at least eight times myself dating back to when I was his age.

You have to be of a certain ilk to enjoy returning to a small town in the summer sweatbox of southern Pennsylvania so many times expecting it to offer more than the time before. Yet for me it has – and did so again this time. Now, I am admittedly one those individuals whose interest and fascination in the Civil War has been manifested in owning more books on the subject than I should ever hope to read.

That perceived restriction is in good part due to the other areas of interest that compete for my attention. Chief among those, I am particularly interested in most all aspects of military strategy. The word, strategy, after all is from the Greek word, stratēgia (στρατηγία), meaning the art of the troop leader or general – to command and provide generalship.

To be sure, I have learned a great deal about organizational strategy and strategic planning from contemporary writers such as Porter, Mintzberg, Ansoff and Chandler to name but a few, but in due time I have found most of their thinking reflects new ways of viewing the foundational principals of strategy that can be found in the works of military strategists such as Sun Tzu, Alexander, Napoleon, Bismarck – and Robert E. Lee.

On my visits to Gettysburg what I enjoy most is walking the battlefields and just looking at the surrounding countryside. Beyond its purely aesthetic benefit I try to imagine what faculties, training and experience it would have taken to translate observation into action (i.e., if I were a commander, how would I have deployed my forces). What makes that three-day conflict so intriguing for the military historian are the strategies employed by both sides in seeking tactical advantage through positioning. Who familiar with the Civil War has not heard of Little Round Top?

If you are an organizational strategist, you cannot help but appreciate the dynamic relationship of planning and positioning. Effective planning is measured by the ability to achieve a future position while being developed based upon current position. And this is where very often strategic planning at healthcare organizations falls well short of its promise. In my experience, the inability – or perhaps unwillingness – to develop a comprehensive and realistic understanding of their organizational current state before engaging in planning efforts is the single biggest mistake healthcare organizations make. It is also the singular key to successful planning efforts.

Too often healthcare organizations get caught up in the chaos that defines their environment. They spend significant amounts of time and effort trying to understand what is happening around them, unfortunately at the expense of understanding what is happening within their own organizations. The old saying of, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get  you there” has recognized validity. But the blinding attraction of imagining a better future can also serve as a siren to organizational leadership causing them to lose sight of practical realities.

The key lesson that was reinforced for me on this latest trip to Gettysburg was that while the ability to envision how infrastructure and topography could be utilized to establish tactical advantage, in order for underlying strategies to be effective the commanders of both armies had to first understand the capabilities of their forces. They had to understand the relative effectiveness of munitions based on distance, angle and elevation. They had to understand how and when troops could be deployed and redeployed between positions. They had to understand why holding a position is ultimately critical to being able to achieve a position.

From a strategic planning perspective, these are lessons I think have tremendous applicability to healthcare organizations, particularly as they seek to make sense of the ever changing regulatory environment in which they operate. If I were to borrow from the old adage, “measure twice – cut once,” I would offer that in organizational strategic planning it is wise to spend one hour envisioning where you want to be for every two hours assessing and understanding where you are right now.