When Healthcare Projects Need to Flat Line

Heather Mier

The healthcare industry, overall, is filled with compassionate and intellectual people. These individuals have very good intention, but little extraneous time to level up their initiatives, or shutter ones that are languishing. Compared to other industries, healthcare projects don’t as routinely get cancelled— and they should. While there may be a hesitation to do so, it is a healthy aspect of portfolio management and one all industries are advised to do.

The most common reasons projects falter (in any industry):

  • FINISH-LININGProjects are way over timeline and yet they continue largely because people have invested so much time and feel compelled to push it over the finish line.
  • DRUDGERY. People have lost interest or fatigued in project work but cling to the hope that if they stick it out, it will complete as promised.
  • ACCOUNTABILITY. Nobody wants to have the conversation to consider “killing” a project.

Healthcare in particular seems to be susceptible to projects that live beyond expiration, both on the provider side and the payer side (insurance). This could come from patient care values — patients are saved at all costs. But projects aren’t people.

Consider medical TV dramas, where doctors and staff do everything in their power to save a patient. If they flat line, they press on— heroes saving lives. It’s a quality of character to be admired, both on and off television. And that’s great for the ER, but not so great with projects. Instead, healthcare leaders should utilize the triage skills that exist within their teams and knowledge base. Projects are a battlefield and healthcare organizations need to focus on what is the best chance for success.

Here are three triage tips for project work:

1. Review projects on a monthly basis with an objective third party. Often, healthcare projects have oversight committees that are responsible for the project that meet on a monthly basis to review the project, address risks, and determine next steps. The topic of killing a project almost never comes up— why would you if that means you go away? Why even talk about cancelling a project and invalidating the reason the committee exists? Healthcare companies could benefit from having an unbiased Project Oversight Committee to review all projects.

2. Establish Criteria for project cancellation. Organizations don’t typically establish criteria for cancelling projects and therefore few people in the organization know when that point is. Just like in triage, there are specific criteria for which projects continue and which don’t. At a portfolio level, anticipate cancelling 20% of your projects this year. There is not a shortage of projects, so be strategic for what is going to be the biggest impact for your business.

3. Reward Failing Fast. In other industries, if your project is cancelled before it becomes a lead weight, it could be reason for celebration—and you get to move on to something else. In healthcare on the other hand, no one wants to step forward to get work taken away. What if those people were celebrated?

You can’t save them all, and we shouldn’t. In order for healthcare to transform, there is a need to prioritize selectiveness— to learn to quickly let go of what isn’t working and to let some projects flat line so others can survive and thrive.