LeadingAge Magazine · March/April 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 02
“We will innovate through this mess, remaining confident in the quality of our staff, products, and systems.”

That statement from Peter Sheahan appears in the preface of his book, Flip, and works well as both a summary of the book and as a statement of purpose he believes every organization ought to adopt.

Sheahan, who will speak at the Leadership General Session of LeadingAge’s PEAK Leadership Summit, wrote his book primarily for those in the business world, but its central messages apply equally well to not-for-profit providers. His approach is essentially about adopting a flexible mindset in the face of accelerating change, learning to accept ambiguity, having the courage to adopt counterintuitive strategies while leaving conventional wisdom behind, and always, always pushing to innovate.

Sheahan identifies four forces of change:

  • Increasing compression of time and space
  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing transparency and accountability
  • Increasing expectations on the part of everyone for everything

While he acknowledges that none of these are new—they are, in fact, ancient—he holds that their feedback loops are tighter and faster than they have ever been, thus making change incredibly rapid. The smart responses to these forces are broken into a series of six “flips”—opportunities to turn conventional wisdom on its head—that he outlines in the book.

LeadingAge interviewed Peter Sheahan about how the lessons of Flip can apply to aging-services providers.

LeadingAge: A lot of the examples you use in Flip are case studies of consumer product manufacturers and service providers. How would you relate your concepts to our members, who are providers of long-term, very “hands-on” services?

Peter Sheahan: The work I’ve done in the last five years [the book was published in 2007] has been much more skewed to people like your members, more intensive service providers. The concepts in Flip are meant to be provocations, forcing people to have more strategic conversations. The role of a leader during times of change is to step back and question what they do and how they add value. When thinking about demographic changes and big changes in health care, and what those expectations of value look like, one of the most dangerous things leaders face in that environment is taking a historical view of clients, and expectations from the past, and using them to define the future. They can develop models that don’t align with how things have changed.

Leaders should step back and ask, “Am I using future-oriented assumptions or am I anchored in historical models for how we do what we do?”

LeadingAge: A question about one of your flips, “Action Creates Clarity”: Our members work in a highly regulated field that depends heavily on government funding. Much of the uncertainty members face is less about guessing how a new technology or product will sell than it is about the potential for changes in government funding and regulation. Given that environment, how would you advise a client in our field to internalize your recommendations about acting in spite of ambiguity or uncertainty?

Peter Sheahan: To be frank, regulation is driving change in lots of industries, and the dysfunctional governance we have now is alive and well everywhere.

I’d start by not allowing regulatory uncertainty to paralyze people [out of] creating innovation. Change coming out of DC takes longer than it should. Any change of clarity about what is “affordable care” will take a long time to figure out. But if the whole [field] steps back and does nothing, we’ll miss huge opportunities.

You can’t wait for external clarity before acting. There will always be change. The more practical approach is that if you’re looking at the changing nature of funding models, wouldn’t now be a good time to start modeling what some of those new [ones] might be? When you try something new, the most important metric early in the process is how quickly you are learning.

LeadingAge: Many of the services our members provide are services consumers sincerely hope they will never need. How might your principles be applied to “products” that people may have to turn to only in times of great stress?

Peter Sheahan: I couldn’t think of [a field] where it’s more important to build the narrative. My sister is an expert on palliative care. There is no field in need of better branding than that.

Talk about an experience that needs to be about branding and positively prepared for. We need people thinking about [these issues] much earlier in their disease state. What are we doing to prepare people for that financially, and what are we doing to help families? The very principles of creating a narrative and branding are even more important here than they are for Procter & Gamble.

LeadingAge: In your chapter “Absolutely, Positively Sweat the Small Stuff,” you talk extensively about how products and services help customers tell the “story” of their lives, and also about the story that the company/organization can offer its customers. If you were a consultant to one of our members, how would you guide the organization as it figures out its own story and how it can help residents with theirs?

Peter Sheahan: One, what story are residents telling themselves? This conversation started by talking about what aging needs to look like today and how it’s different from what it looked like in the past. I think it will be reinvented more fundamentally by baby boomers. Clearly my mother has a different story about what living environment she would be happy with. That’s the concept of where and how I choose to live, saying something about me as a person.

A lot depends on what your model is. What is the story you want a resident of that community to tell? Why would they [choose] being with you instead of somewhere else? What does that mean to staff and how do you rally the staff around that?

What you do in the more acute environments is tough work. You need to build the employee story. Seek alignment between your story, the resident stories and the staff stories. You’ve got language, symbols, and other “X factors” that can be used to remind people that’s really what we’re doing here.

The problem is that most organizations don’t take [building a story] seriously enough. They think it’s soft, it’s too intangible and superficial. The question is, what’s the deeper meaning of what you do and how do you manifest it through touch points?

LeadingAge: Building on your book and consulting, what issues will you address at the PEAK Conference?

Peter Sheahan: We are going to talk about very different things when I’m at LeadingAge. I’ll talk about:

  • What assumptions are we making about the value and services we bring?
  • What opportunities exist for innovating in how we do what we do, not just what we do.
  • The concept of alignment and what that means to our focus.
  • Collaboration and how we work together, as we reinvent the aging experience.