It is often said that the one and only constant in life is change. This is certainly the case in business where every change in the external market or new initiative or idea brings some type of change to the organization. As leaders, our success or failure can hinge upon how well we are able to facilitate change and how well we help our members of our team adapt to and appreciate change.
As president of a large, national health care organization, like many other business leaders, I am involved in important decisions related not only to performance today, but also preparing the organization for what will be required in the future. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about change. What can we expect with change? How will people react to change? How can I help my team work through the change? How will change affect the way we operate or service our members? What will it cost us?
The reality is most people don’t like change because it can be stressful, especially when change happens unexpectedly. Change can be scary, and understandably so. It represents the unknown, taking us out of our comfort zones. Any time an organization embarks on a new initiative there is the risk of failure, which could have significant financial consequences. Yet, if we don’t change, failure is certain. As society evolves, we must too. Organizations that not only understand the importance of change, but embrace change, are the ones that will ultimately be most successful.
Take Starbucks, for example. The company single-handedly changed how society talks about coffee. We no longer order a small cup of coffee with skim milk; it’s a tall, skinny latte. The person handing us our coffee is not a server, but a barista. Even more significant, getting coffee has become a social event with the casual atmosphere, comfy chairs and outlets for laptops in most Starbucks locations. For Starbucks, changing the language was a way to distinguish itself from its competitors, but it was also a risk that could have alienated customers and hurt sales. Few could dispute its risk paid off.
The health care industry has been going through a similar transformation as we change the language of caring for patients. Kaiser Permanente was one of the first health care organizations to move away from talking about health care to focusing on and talking about health. For our members, we are focused on managing and improving health and well-being so people can live the life they want to live. It’s about returning to health if you experience a health issue – and keeping a focus on healthy aging. If we are healthy, we can play catch with our grandson, swim with the dolphins, or take a hike on a sunny day.
We have also been changing to reflect the new age of mobile devices. Several years ago we moved away from paper-based records to electronic medical records. Now using our mobile apps, our members can directly engage with their health care providers using their mobile devices and even access their lab test results, which are available online in just a few hours after the tests. It’s about tailoring how we deliver care to match how our members are living their lives – and sometimes it’s even via social media like Twitter. We are using this change as an opportunity to better engage with our members and improve the quality and accessibility of the care we provide.
Leading through a time of transformation requires us to directly engage with our leaders and employees to help everyone understand the rationale behind the change. We can encourage our teams to look not only at how doing things differently will make their jobs different, but to also ask, “How could this make my job better?” The old way of doing something, doesn’t mean it is the right way or the only way. Understanding that principle can move the needle in helping us embrace change. Our role as leaders is to help our teams see how each individual has an important role in the transformation. This gives everyone a sense of ownership in the process and in the end result.
Over my long career, I’ve come to realize that the one thing we can always be certain of is there is more change to come. Charles Darwin once wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The organizations and leaders that embrace change will not only survive, they’ll thrive.
Bernard J. Tyson is president and chief operating officer of Kaiser Permanente.