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7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Eric Norwood was sitting in a meeting with administrators and physicians trying to solve a tough issue facing DeKalb Regional Health System Inc., but he wasn’t having much luck.

“[It] had so many different dimensions to it, it was like a spider’s web of interconnected issues and problems, that if you just tried to solve one, the unintended consequences of the others that are affected by it would offset any benefit that you got,” says Norwood, the medical center’s president and CEO

He noticed that situations like this were becoming increasingly common. When it comes to leading 3,800 employees and maximizing their effectiveness in achieving goals, Norwood now has to take a more collaborative approach to problem solving.

“Gone are the days when a hospital administrator can stiff-arm physicians on the medical staff and say, ‘I’ll take care of running the hospital, and you take care of practicing medicine,’” he says. “We just can’t solve the challenges of health care in the United States that way. We have to, as hospital administrators, reach out and draw in physician leaders and make a place for them at the decision-making table and share that power and authority and responsibility with our physician partners, and it works.”

In order to make any organization more effective, Norwood says you have to build teams for each issue, have better discussions and respect people’s time.

Build a team

A doctor has a very different approach to problem solving than a businessperson. While you may take a couple of weeks to research all of the possible solutions and the effects of each solution, and then, based on the research, make a decision, a doctor is trained to do the opposite. He or she will make a decision quickly based on the information readily available to him or her, and then if more information becomes available, the doctor may change course.

“You may say, ‘Which of these approaches is the better approach to take?’” Norwood says. “I think the truthful answer is it depends on the situation.”

In some situations, if you take the physician’s approach, it may be a false start and cause problems, but in other cases, if you take the businessperson’s approach, it might be too late. So it’s important to have those differing viewpoints whenever you create a team to address any issue or problem.

“Putting those two together in a team is a powerful proposition,” he says. “It’s challenging to lead, because you are trying to build a team with people who have very different personalities.”

Despite the challenge of it, it’s something that you have to do before you can jump into trying to solve anything.

“Whoever is the leader of the team has to recognize that building the team is a very necessary first step, and trying to jump into the action items too quickly may backfire on you,” Norwood says.

Sometimes when people build teams to solve problems, it’s often centered around positions and titles, but Norwood advises to look beyond that.

“It comes down to two real criteria — interest and expertise,” he says. “If you’ve got an issue that comes up that needs to be resolved, I’m going to be thinking about what’s the smallest number of people that have expertise in this area and have an interest at stake, and try to get them in the room. When you get more than eight or 10 people, it’s becoming a committee, and a committee takes on a life of its own.”

Have better discussions

When you build a team of people that have differing views or approaches, you then have to find a way to unite them so you can be productive.

“In whatever business that we’re in, we’re looking for, ‘What’s the common passion?’” Norwood says. “What is the passion for why you do what you do? It’s a whole lot easier to get people’s backs into a project than it is to get their hearts into it.”

But by getting people’s hearts into it, you’ll be more effective. For Norwood, that common passion comes pretty easily — providing excellent care for patients — but maybe you run a business that doesn’t have as clear-cut of a commonality. That’s when you look for the basics.

“Whether you’re building a car or a computer … at the end of the day, if you’re running a successful organization, you’re actually providing employment for people in your firm and all the industries that support your economy,” he says.

You can also dig more to establish further common ground.

“Sometimes the question would be, ‘What’s the outcome that you’re looking for? What do you want to see come out of this?’” he says. “You have self-interest in it, and the interest of your patients in it, what does success look like? I believe that people always act in ways that make sense to them. We can get into disagreements and disputes and look at the other party and say, ‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ but it does make sense to them.”

As a leader, Norwood says you have to go with Stephen Covey’s approach of seek first to understand and then be understood.

“Instead of pushing so hard to try to get someone to do it your way, spending a little bit of time upfront to understand why it’s so important to them, apparently, to do what makes no sense to you, is huge,” he says.

To understand others, become a better active listener.

“It’s someone who says, ‘Let me say back to you what I think I just heard you say — did I catch what it is I think you’re saying?’” Norwood says. “That’s a hallmark of good active listening — you’re showing respect to the other person to say, ‘I wasn’t just sitting here thinking about what I was going to say next.’”

If you can master this, then you’re already halfway there, and you’ll notice people beginning to relax.

“It’s like a pressure cooker,” he says. “You see the pressure valve go off in the chest of that person across the table because they’re showing you that you finally get it — ‘You understand what I’m upset about or what I’m trying to get to.’”

Despite actively listening and finding a common ground, you’ll still have times when people don’t handle themselves well in the meeting.

“I always have a choice of OK, if there’s a conflict, do I take that conflict offline and avoid dealing with it in the group or do I invest the time — not spend the time — right there in the moment to make a teaching moment and say, ‘OK, let’s take a look at what just happened and how could we have done that better?’” Norwood says.

Often, you may ignore it in an attempt to move through your agenda, but look at that teachable moment as an investment instead of a waste.

“We invest in things that we know will give us a return later, so we can stop and catch ourselves in the moment and say, ‘I’m going to cause myself to invest the time right now, when I don’t really want to do it, because I’m going to get a much better return from this if I do it now than if I go write a memo later,’” he says.

Respect people’s time

Each July 1, at the start of the new fiscal year, the electronic c

alendar at DeKalb Medical is completely blank and has no meetings scheduled on it.

“It’s just wiped clean, and they have to be recreated so that we sunset every meeting in the organization, and it’s only recreated if there’s a conscious decision to recreate it,” Norwood says.

The reason is simple — to not waste people’s time. Often, when you initially form a team to solve a problem, everyone is needed, but as you progress, certain people are no longer needed. Or perhaps you invited someone to come to a meeting once and continued asking that person back, but he or she really isn’t needed there. Or throw the people part aside, and maybe the meeting itself isn’t even needed anymore. All of these situations waste people’s time and affect productivity, so to eliminate these issues, Norwood says to simply cancel all meetings every year.

“We announced it a month ahead and reminded everybody that 30 days from now, everything is going to go blank, and you better start now if you intend to recreate a meeting and who should be in those meetings,” he says. “People are building a culture of if you’re invited to go to a meeting, you have the prerogative to push back and say, ‘Now, why do you need me?’ There’s a cultural collegiality to this, but we’re making the point that your time is valuable — don’t waste it.”

Doing this has helped Norwood and his executive team reclaim the equivalent of about two weeks of time that they can now use doing other things to move the organization forward.

“Killing meetings once a year to re-establish what’s necessary versus what’s superfluous starts to build a culture of let’s not waste time in meetings and waste people sitting around in meetings they’re not contributing to, and hopefully, we can make the ones that do occur more meaningful and more productive,” he says.

And Norwood has found ways to do that, as well. For example, he and his team agreed that the BlackBerry can be a powerful, yet distracting, tool. So they agreed that when they have meetings just among their team, they are permitted to be working on their BlackBerrys as well as participating in the meeting; however, if any other person outside of the core team is present at the meeting, it’s a different story.

“It’s off limits,” he says. “We may not use our BlackBerrys, because that’s not showing respect to the person coming in.”

Additionally, when they had guests for meetings, they used to make that person or group wait until their spot in the agenda, but now they’ve reversed it. If a guest has come for a spot in the agenda, they move that person to the top automatically.

“They get the first slot on the agenda so they can come, do their thing and get back to work,” Norwood says.

They also made a commitment to start every meeting on time and to attempt to end early. By doing all of these things, now even fewer people’s time was being wasted. He says you have to, as a team, identify these kinds of little time-wasters in your organization and make changes so you better respect people’s time and move the organization forward.

“It was just what were the things that made sense to us,” he says. “It was saying them out loud, writing them on a flip chart and reducing them to a list that made sense and looking each other in the eye and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to start living this way,’ and it had a remarkable impact on our culture. It was shocking. I don’t think we were really aware of how much we were being distracted by what Covey would refer to as quadrant-one time instead of quadrant-two time.”

How to reach: DeKalb Regional Health System Inc., (404) 501-1000 or www.dekalbmedical.com