Collective Ambition in Healthcare and Higher Education

The notion of Collective Ambition, as presented in a recent HBR article, brings together a set of elements that, when combined, predict success for organizations, even when the going is tough. These ideas can be extended to healthcare and higher education at a time when both sectors are struggling around the world to cope with increasing demands for service yet at the same time fiscal restraint. (full article)

In reading the piece by Ready and Truelove in Dec 2011 HBR on the Power of Collective Ambition, I was struck how this model can be applied beyond the sectors that the authors analyzed and into the domains of healthcare and higher education.

From their studies of many companies that have defied conventional wisdom and flourished in tough times, these authors have identified seven elements that combine to define success:

  • Purpose: the reason for being
  • Vision: desired position to be achieved within a reasonable time frame
  • Targets & Milestones: metrics used to assess progress
  • Strategic & Operational Priorities: ordered actions taken to achieve the vision
  • Brand promise: commitments made overtly about what the experience will be like
  • Core Values: guiding principles that signal what the organization stands for
  • Leader Behaviors: how leaders act daily to achieve all that is encompassed in the other elements.

As the world struggles to chart a future that combines decline of the West from centuries of dominance, the emergence of burgeoning populations in the East and pursuit of new freedoms in Islamic countries, the emphasis on education for the next generation and good healthcare for all is increasingly in the spotlight.

Institutions of higher education and healthcare are struggling whether they are long established ones trying to reinvent themselves or start-ups.  They are called upon to do more with less and to deliver better value but are often mired in tradition and wedded to doing things the way they used to be done. Progress is thwarted by those traditions and innovation is frequently hindered in power cycles of the professions that have controlled their institutions.  Both sectors have been slow to learn from other disciplines and to adapt ideas and experiences from the business and corporate sectors.

Douglas Ready and Emily Truelove have found that it is not a single one of the elements listed above that predicts success and sustainability in tough times, but all of them combined.  It is, however, clear from their studies that clarity of “purpose” is of paramount importance throughout an organization.

As I move around the world working with healthcare and higher education organizations, I am struck how many cannot answer with succinct precision the questions – why do they exist?, what is their purpose?  Does the new university have a really clear idea about whether they want to focus on teaching and caring about students or are they really interested in pursuing discovery of new knowledge through research?  Many dilute their potential and even their brand by trying to be all things, mimicking historic world-class universities. Are struggling hospitals or those aspiring to grow really clear on their clinical services lines and market targets?

It seems to me that for our ailing healthcare systems and universities/colleges, the combination of the elements put forward under the rubric of Collective Ambition provides a useful barometer for reflection, analysis and action.