How Rookie-style Leadership Can Help Transform Healthcare, According to HAS™ 2016 Keynote Liz Wiseman

lis-wiseman-300x300If asked to list qualities we look for in a leader, many of us might include knowledge, know-how, and expertise. According to Liz Wiseman, however, president of leadership research and development firm The Wiseman Group, the best leaders are often those who put as much (or more) stock in what they don’t know. Wiseman delves into this theory of the “power of not knowing” and the research behind it in her book Rookie Smarts. We are excited to invite Wiseman to share these and other insights with us at HAS 2016.

As today’s transforming healthcare industry faces mounting new challenges, this sector, in particular, can benefit from rookie-style leadership as described by Wiseman. The Harvard Business Review has claimed that management is currently U.S. healthcare’s greatest challenge. The changes at hand—notably, the continuing shift to value-based programs, technological advances and their associated concerns (data security, for example), and demand to control cost while improving care—require brazen, inventive leadership. According to Wiseman, this is precisely the type of governance that “rookie smarts” (or embracing inquiry over knowledge) enables.

The Rookie Zone and the Power of Not Knowing

We don’t often hear a case for knowing less, especially when it comes to leadership. At a January 2016 address at Brigham Young University (BYU), however, Wiseman posited that when we don’t have knowledge, we’re prompted to learn and are more open to the perspective of others. With this intellectual blank canvas, we can see real opportunities and solutions, as opposed to what we think we know to be true or factual. With a knowledge-only approach, our view can be limited to what we already know, and we may see less around us, she explained in her presentation.

Wiseman has made a compelling case for a prudent amount of ignorance when it comes to leadership. Deep expertise can not only put leaders at risk of being “too smart for their own good” (as the adage goes), but also too smart for the good of others. During her appearance at BYU, Wiseman asked, “How does the intelligence of a leader affect those around him or her?” Specifically, she probed, does the leader’s intelligence amplify the knowledge of those around? Or, as Wiseman noted happens in some organizations, does the leader seem to suck intelligence out of room?

She continued to explain that there are two kinds of leaders:

  1. The “diminisher” doesn’t see the genius in those around, and, as a result, compels his or her team to hold back with their own ideas.
  2. The “multiplier” has what Wiseman described as “infectious” intelligence. By recognizing the brilliance in others, he or she amplifies their knowledge, effectively multiplying the team’s capabilities.

To put the above leadership distinctions in the context of personal experience, Wiseman posed this question: “Have you ever wondered why you’re brilliant around some people, but kind of a bumbling fool around others?” She explained that she’s conducted research to better understand why some leaders bring out best in their teams, while others fail to tap into much of their teams’ capabilities.

During her investigation, Wiseman found that the diminisher-style leaders gave blunt directions based primarily on what they could see and what they knew. They led with the attitude that no one could accomplish a task without their direction.

The multipliers, on the other hand, took a more constructive approach, rooted in respect for the intelligence of the people around them. Instead of strictly telling their workforce how to do something, they guided by defining opportunities and allowing their teams to stretch toward these goals.

According to Wiseman’s results, the diminishers were able to draw from less than half of the intelligence of others, leaving a remarkable amount of available resources untouched. The multipliers, on the other hand, put to work 100 percent of their teams’ intelligence, making this leadership style twice as effective as that of their diminisher counterparts.

With this research to back her theory of rookie smarts, Wiseman made a case for challenging ourselves in leadership positions for which we’re not entirely qualified. While a lack of absolute expertise may seem counterintuitive (and counterproductive to some), she argued that there is real benefit and opportunity in the state of not knowing—what she calls the rookie zone. For one, she said, we tend to be uncomfortable when we take on an unfamiliar challenge, and this discomfort compels us to grasp more knowledge around us, to innovate. When we don’t have knowledge determining our outlook, we see more, explore more, ask better questions, listen, and value feedback. Wiseman added that in the rookie zone, we tend to be cautious but work quickly and, when resources are scarce, get very resourceful. As humans, she said, we’re built for challenge, and we do our best when we know the least.

Reaching the Rookie Zone

To get into this highly innovative rookie zone, Wiseman encouraged listeners to “shed burden of knowledge,” or operate unhindered by experience and expertise. She outlined a process of asking questions, choosing inquiry over existing knowledge, and admitting what you don’t know—as value in today’s fast-paced work culture lies in what you build, not what you bring. Furthermore, Wiseman touted fresh thinking (“Throw away your notes,” she advised) and be ready to see the genius in others. “The best leaders,” she explained, “don’t have all the answers. They have really good questions.”

What Multipliers Can Mean for Today’s Healthcare

How do Wiseman’s leadership principles apply to healthcare and, in particular, to those of us engaged in data-driven outcomes improvement? As we all know, data and analytics are a part of realizing meaningful and sustained organizational change. But they alone don’t drive transformation. And this is where multiplier leadership comes in—the type of leaders who are willing to look past what they believe they know and help establish a culture of examining all options. Importantly, they’ll be keen to embrace change as is indicated by data and embrace the knowledge within their organization. Healthcare has historically seen more diminisher leaders than groundbreaking multipliers, which can help explain why transformation, as today’s circumstances demand, has been a challenge.

The good news is that we have the resources for meaningful, sustained change and the candidates for multiplier leadership, including highly educated and caring physicians. For the next step—to close the loop between data resources and improved care—we need leaders with rookie-like infectious enthusiasm for data integration and adoption. With this potential in mind, we are especially excited to hear from Wiseman about how her principles of rookie leadership can help healthcare make this momentous step forward.

Join us for the Healthcare Analytics Summit (HAS) 2016 on September 6 to 8 at Salt Lake City and hear Liz Wiseman present her keynote address, “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.”

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