"Managing a Living Thing"
Fostering a merger of two physician organizations and a natural
view of organizations
A Story from Richard Weinberg, Vice President, Network
Development, Atlantic Health System
a physician, I learned to think from a biological perspective," notes Richard
Weinberg, "When I went into management, traditional organizational theory seemed
artificial, foreign to my experience.
when I started studying complexity theory through the VHA project last year (1996), I was
stunned. Here was a way of thinking about organizations that compared them to living
things. That makes sense to me, intuitively."
Besides making sense, Weinberg
finds that complexity theory is based on a more accurate model of how hospitals, and the
economy in general, work. So, for example, it offers a valuable explanation of why
business plans so often dont come out the way managers expect.
theory tells us to develop a long-term strategy, extending five-to-ten years out," he
explains. "At every step along the way, were supposed to measure where we are
against where the plan says we should be and make adjustments.
"So the leader of a
health care system will decide that it should have a specific numbers of hospitals,
physicians, and nurse practitioners. But life never works out the way our plans expect. So
even the best plan can get derailed by some event it hadnt anticipated. If the
leader insists the system follows his plan, without changing it to account for that event,
he or she is likely to end up with a less than optimal operation and lots of unhappy
people. After all, an organization isnt a car or a truck that you can drive to a
Complexity theory, Weinberg
adds, teaches that organizations are more like living things, subject to unexpected
events. Instead of fixing numerical goals and trying to force people to meet them,
complexity theory suggests that managers set goals, in terms of quality or cost reduction,
for example, and then free people to find their own best way to meet those goals.
become more efficient," he says, "and will probably develop ideas you never
would have thought of. What youre really doing is making the most of the
intelligence of all parts of the organization in solving your problems."
As an example of this technique of problem solving, Weinberg points to a problem
several of the hospitals involved with his physicians organization now face.
"Until recently, we could
only reshape damaged arteries with invasive surgery and required a vascular surgeon,"
he explains. "However, a new technique, noninvasive peripheral vascular surgery,
allows us to reshape the arteries with only a minor incision. As a result, radiologists
and cardiologists can also perform the procedure. So weve been set up for a major
There are three alternatives for resolving this conflict, Weinberg continues:
third alternative yields the best results because the physicians involved are likely to
come up with something more innovative than any one or two people handing down an
edict," he explains. "And, because they design the final plan, theyre much
less likely to turn it into an ongoing conflict. It also allows different hospitals, with
different needs, to develop the solutions that fit them best."
Weinberg adds that the four
hospitals his group works with demonstrate the financial benefits of encouraging this kind
of physician collaboration. "We have four hospitals," he notes. "The
largest, most successful one is also the most collaborative. It makes important decisions
by involving all the parties involved. On the other hand, our most financially troubled
hospital is the most hierarchical in its decision making."
Weinberg notes that some of the basic concepts of complexity theory give people tools they
need to understand the nature of their shifting markets. Here, he talks about how he
explained the recent merger of two physicians managed health care groups. "The
idea of emergence was central here," he explains. "When you put together living
systems that have never been together before, you can never be sure what will happen. The
final state emerges as all the parts interact.
this kind of situation, people often have a lot of anxiety, especially in the environment
of downsizing thats existed for a while," he continues. "So I tried to
explain that we were all in the middle of a new system that was emerging. I used Gareth
Morgans metaphor, "We are rebuilding our house while we are living in it.
I helped them understand that, while no one knows exactly what this new house will look
like, we are building a very large house, that there will be many, many rooms."
adds that a year or so ago, he would have tried to reassure each individual that he would
try to take care of them. "Now," he says, "I try to reassure them, looking
forward and painting a picture of the future that they can understand and grasp as a great
emphasizes that not all problems need to be approached this way. Problems that are either
simple or that have predictable outcomes dont demand the creative, experimental
approach complexity theory suggests. "Our chief financial officer wont ever
have to use it," he notes, "and does care about it."
cites one other example of using complexity theory in his administrative duties.
"We had two
physicians organizations in this area," he explains, "my PHO with 440 doctors
and a much smaller primary care IPA. More than 30 of our primary care doctors belonged to
both. There were a couple of problems with this situation. For one thing, our PHO
didnt have enough primary care doctors. For another, some of the members of the IPA
were associated with another hospital, so we were sometimes in competition. The logical
solution was to merge the two organizations.
"There was a time when I
would have planned out the merger and tried to force it to happen just the way Id
wanted," Weinberg continues. "But complexity theory told me to take a much
different approach: Set up the minimum specs; give everyone a chance to define the pig
[openly express their understanding of the situation]; then trust intelligent people to
make the decision thats best for everyone; and then watch for that one leverage
point that would let the new arrangement emerge.
I approached the IPA and explained our minimum specs: We wanted to combine the two
organizations in a way that would preserve the assets of the PHO and make as much of them
as possible available to the new members. We held talks every two weeks. I was keeping
members of the IPA informed about developments and held focus sessions with members of the
PHO. It was all very open. And then we hit a snag.
"Members of the PHO decided
they had to know who the capital partner was going to be before they would vote,"
Weinberg notes. "The small group was not happy about this new minimum spec. They were
unhappy with the capital partner the PHO was suggesting, and everything came to a dead
"Here was the major
difference in using complexity theory," he points out. "Rather than trying to
convince the IPA members or use our larger size to intimidate them, we continued to
operate in the open and trust the IPA. On a Thursday night, the PHO decided to vote for
its capital partner and we sent a message to the IPA saying we were still interested, but
that we had to choose the capital partner.
"Then, on the next Tuesday
night, at a regular focus group, half the board members from the IPA showed up! I
explained what the PHO was going to do. The IPA held a board meeting that night and agreed
with our choice for capital partner. Now were finishing up the merger.
"It worked exactly the way
complexity theory suggested it should," Weinberg says. "We got exactly the
outcome wed wanted. But I couldnt track the interventions that were going on
because all I had to do was push one lever that flipped the situation. It didnt
require the hard work, all the cajoling and negotiations, that Im used to in the
business world. All it required was to accept what the other physicians were thinking and
to state what we wanted. It was almost too easy."
Of course, no one expects all
outcomes to emerge that effortlessly. Still, Weinberg recognizes that the rapid change of
todays markets will throw up lots of problems that are complex and
unpredictable-that is, problems that respond well to complexity theory.
"We used to think we were
in equilibrium," Weinberg points out. "Well never be able to fool
ourselves like that again. Today, were in the middle of vast changes, and I
dont believe any of us will see an end to them.
"Complexity gives us the
tools to manage and survive in the middle of that unending change."
All Components of Edgeware Tales
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