New program takes new approach to healthcare leadership

For Dr Michael Fischer, the healthcare sector is an exemplar of complexity, where the traditional top-down approach to leadership tends not to work.

“Very often, when you speak to CEOs and managers, they talk about the complexity of structures, as if they were buildings. But when you work in an organisation, they don't look like structures. They look like communities of people interacting with each other. “


Michael is the program director of Inspiring Healthcare Leaders, a new Melbourne Business School executive education program that is informed by his long experience in the UK as a senior clinician and researcher.

After 25 years in healthcare in the UK, and many struggles to get primary and secondary health providers to work together to help patients, he moved into organisational research to better understand how informal relationships often overcome rigid structures to deliver positive outcomes.

“This informal organisation, this backstage, as I like to call it, can be far more important and useful than the formal structure. So, do we stick to the notion of a hierarchy, where everybody has a role, a function and job description, where things are very clear and linear, or can we think differently about these communities that interact in different ways to soften the structure?”

Michael says the new five-day program, which draws on his research at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, will help healthcare leaders inspire collaboration as if they were orchestra conductors.

“It's not about you, as a leader, giving a great performance. It's really about drawing on your experiences and resources, to inspire other people. And it's not really about the musicians’ performance alone, but what you create between you.”

Michael says the program has three main elements. One focuses on understanding the nature of leading a complex, adaptive, open system, over which you can’t have complete control.

Another element exploits the bringing together of clinicians and managers from different backgrounds to get them to work together on their work challenges.

“We'll be analysing these challenges, using effective models, thinking about potential points of implementation, and designing ways of experimenting, given that solutions often aren't grand plans. It’s about seeing what works, being reflective, and adjusting interventions accordingly.”

The third element concerns the leadership journey and draws on participants’ internal resources, experiences and values to turn them into ‘inspiring conductors’.

Michael says the program will help healthcare leaders adapt to the change taking place around them with the introduction of new technologies, treatments and greater patient involvement in their care.

He says governments are beginning to recognise the value of collaboration across organisational boundaries, as shown by the introduction of Centres of Advanced Health Research Translation, which bring together medical researchers and clinicians in an attempt to cut the typical 17-year gap between putting research discovery into medical practice.

The Federal Government recently announced the establishment of a centre in Sydney, two in Melbourne and a state-wide centre in South Australia, with more centres planned across Australia later.

“They’re modelled on academic health science centres in the UK, which are major partnerships of up to 25,000–30,000 people,” Michael says. “The model comes from the US originally and moved to Canada before travelling to the UK about six years ago.”

He says adapting the model to Australian needs and conditions will require the right leadership skills.

“As these centres become more successful, as they ought to be, they create enormous challenges for leaders to find ways to lead such complex organisations, which link universities, hospitals and primary and secondary care. It's tremendously exciting. It's cross-collaboration on a grand scale. It's a huge orchestra.”

Michael says the purpose of the Inspiring Healthcare Leaders program is to develop the skills necessary to lead any healthcare organisation or project that depends on collaboration to succeed, as most do.

“It recognises that healthcare leaders are part of a community. And when you bring people together in the same room, they start sharing new ways of thinking. It's a network-like approach, almost like crowd sourcing. And the program’s impact will continue long after the program finishes.

“I talk about it being a six-month journey rather than a five-day excursion. It's really about understanding what brings people to the program in the first place, the values, experiences and challenges they bring, while giving them space to experiment and reflect and benefit from strong follow up afterwards.”

Read more about Dr Michael Fischer and the Inspiring Healthcare Leaders program.