Monday, August 10, 2009

Please call me next time

After years of being a somewhat public figure, I have gotten used to being misinterpreted and misquoted in the popular press, even when a reporter has interviewed me. But this is the first time someone in academia has done so, and it was compounded by a failure of a respected business magazine to conduct proper fact-checking.

Here's the story. I recently received a "teaser" saying,

"Recently, people have been asking us what they can do to respond to the current economic crisis and the major leadership challenges they face today. We have also received numerous requests for success stories of organizations investing in their capacity for adaptive change.

"Here are some new resources that we think you will find helpful:

"...Our article in the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review, "Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis," identifies three case studies that illuminate recommended practices, tools and tactics from the Adaptive Leadership framework. A quick taste:

"...Embrace disequilibrium – When Paul Levy became the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, there was a high level of disequilibrium in the hospital. The organization had both financial challenges as well as difficult internal tensions. After working through the financial issues, Levy kept up the state of discomfort in order to induce change and resist the temptation for the organization to fall back on status quo."

There are two problems here. The first is that the authors misrepresent my management approach. The second is that neither they nor the publishers of the magazine contacted me in preparing their publication or the publicity surrounding the publication.

Beyond the break in protocol, this public characterization of how I manage an organization is troubling. The authors make it sound manipulative and disrespectful of the people in the organization, as opposed to a role more akin to coaching. They make no mention of how I frame issues in the context of the underlying values of the organization and the people working here, nor encourage a shared governance approach to problem-solving, both aided by being very transparent about the state of the institution. This draws strength and involvement from the staff: That, not embracing disequilibrium, is the key message.

Indeed, it feels like the authors squeezed what I actually did into their pre-existing analytic framework rather than fully exploring what it was.

Imagine how a nurse or doctor reading this would respond. I think they would feel that they had been used, versus how they really felt during that time -- engaged and energized. That is the ultimate problem with the materials presented by the authors and publisher.

I hesitated to write this, but I know of no other way to correct the record in a manner reasonably contemporaneous with publication of the teaser and the article.


nasov said...

So much business writing is like this: look back at something successful and give a gibberish name to it as if you somehow created the idea.

Yuck. How will you decide about communicating with your employees? Leave it at the blog? I assume most people do not read the HBR, but perhaps the ones who do would see a letter from you in it and that would do it.

If these guys had ethical standards they would send a correction to the same list they spammed.

Mark Graban said...

It's a bit puzzling that HBR is technically and tangentially part of the same organization as BIDMC, correct? Too bad they did that to you.

Anonymous said...

No, Mark, that is not correct. We have nothing to do with HBR or HBS.

Anonymous said...

I think this emanates from your "creative tension" post some time ago. I confess at the time I didn't quite understand that post myself, but certainly would not have interpreted it in this way.
The media in general is a whole 'nother subject, particularly in how they are helping distort the current health care debate.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a Peter Senge concept. By posting an aggressive goal for the organization and then comparing it to the present state, all people can see where the place needs to go.

Mark Graban said...

Thanks for clarifying. I guess I wasn't sure how close any ties between Harvard medical school and the rest of Harvard were. It's all under that umbrella brand name, so it's confusing.

Megan said...

I hope that you will take this experience as a teaching point for the hospital staff.

You wrote, "Indeed, it feels like the authors squeezed what I actually did into their pre-existing analytic framework rather than fully exploring what it was."

That statement struck me as how it often feels as a patient in the healthcare system--squeezed into the pre-existing framework. So if you could say, "Let's remember what it felt like when this happened to us, and make sure our patients never feel that way."

Anonymous said...


That kind of "anchoring" is indeed a serious and well recognized problem in diagnosis. Jerry Groopman, for example, writes about it in "How Doctor's Think."

Lewis hamilton said...

good article, thanks very much.

Bwana said...


This is perhaps another example of how all publishing is going the way of the tabloid or the cable channel to gain eyeball share by sensationalizing everything even as mundane as a "historical" rather than "analytical" view of a past successful resurrection.

OTOH, you might have enjoyed a bit more of a (well-deserved) massage and "attaboy."

Most troubling is that these people are involved in producing the business "leaders" of tomorrow. If they don't have basic etiquette and basic comprehension of the problem, how do they plan to offer well-mannered solutions?


Jerry said...

Is this the phrase that troubles you, "Levy kept up the state of discomfort..."?

If so, I can see how it could strike an informed reader as a form of lazy shorthand.

The corporate press is too full of lazy writers and editors, but that's another matter.

I don't work at BIDMC, and don't have any firsthand knowledge of your leadership style.

But, to me, the phrase indicates that you didn't stop after addressing one set of problems, and even infers a contrast between your willingness to confront the knottier 'internal tensions,' and the ease with which others might have just ignored them.

It's a contrast in your favor, IMO.

I'd have written it more along those lines, if that was the point I was trying to make.

As for them calling you first - to verify a quote, yeah. But otherwise, it's the up to the author's discretion.

What did I say about lazy?

e-Patient Dave said...

Funny, just last weekend I was thinking of your long-ago mention of "creative tension." Such a powerful concept.

Did you take Peter's Leadership & Mastery workshop way back in the wayback machine? (At Innovation Associates, with Charlie Kiefer. That was my first glimpse of mind-bending thought processes... well, the first after the hippie years, anyway.)

--So anyway, what was the outcome of this?

Anonymous said...

Nope, never took that.

Outcome? None, really. I sent this blog url to the editor of HBR and was told that I could submit a letter to the editor, to which the authors could respond. I'm not sure sure what value that has exactly, but I am considering it.

To me, though, this is about editorial standards of the HBR as much as it is about the work of the authors: No attempt at fact-checking. Years ago, when I wrote an article for HBR, there were extensive procedures for fact-checking. Makes you wonder why that policy has changed.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I sent this entry to the authors, too. Of course, they could reply here if they wanted . . .

Lisa Buyer said...

The authors not replying is called sad ignorance, in this day of user generated media, journalists need to embrace social media, take responsibility and be in tune to conversations happening online. This was an opportunity for them to take a negative and make it right with a positive.
I always tell my clients, I can take "no" for an answer, but I can't take "no answer" ..,

Anonymous said...

I agree, Lisa. The editor of HBR has told me that I can submit a letter to the editor there, to which the authors would then respond. Perhaps they prefer that forum, where they get to have the last word.

Ronald Heifitz said...

Dear Paul,

All of us at Cambridge Leadership Associates regret that we did not speak with you before publication of the Harvard Business Review article, Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, in which we use your work at BIDMC to exemplify courageous and thoughtful leadership. We also regret offending you in the brief characterization of your leadership in our marketing e-mail and that the summary paragraph may have generated misunderstanding in your relationship with your colleagues at BIDMC.

As you know, the marketing paragraph tried, unsuccessfully, to capture our view in the HBR article that your leadership has been extraordinary. We think of you as one of the outstanding public managers of our time, which is why we chose to highlight you as one of the three people whose stories formed the backbone of our article. Clearly the wording of our marketing summary should have been more careful.

In order that the readers of your blog have some of the context of our thinking, we have included below an excerpt from the HBR article.

We look forward to getting together with you in the fall to learn more about your leadership and how you think about it.

With warm regards,

Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow

Embrace disequilibrium. Without urgency, difficult change becomes far less likely. But if people feel too much distress, they will fight, flee, or freeze. The art of leadership in today’s world involves orchestrating the inevitable conflict, chaos, and confusion of change so that the disturbance is productive rather than destructive.

Health care is in some ways a microcosm of the turbulence and uncertainty facing the entire economy. Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, is trying to help his organization adapt to the industry’s constant changes.

When Levy took over, in 2002, Beth Israel Deaconess was a dysfunctional organization in serious financial trouble. Created several years previously through the hasty merger of two Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals, it had struggled to integrate their very different cultures. Now it was bleeding red ink and faced the likelihood of being acquired by a forprofit company, relinquishing its status as a prestigious research institution. Levy quickly made changes that put the hospital on a stronger financial footing and eased the cultural tensions.

To rescue the medical center, Levy had to create discomfort. He forced people to confront the potentially disastrous consequences of maintaining the status quo —- continued financial losses, massive layoffs, an outright sale —- stating in a memo to all employees that “this is our last chance” to save the institution.

He publicly challenged powerful medical factions within the hospital and made clear he’d no longer tolerate clashes between the two cultures.
(continued below)

Ronald Heifitz said...

(continued from above)

But a successful turnaround was no guarantee of long-term success in an environment clouded by uncertainty. In fact, the stability that resulted from Levy’s initial achievements threatened the hospital’s ability to adapt to the succession of challenges that lay ahead.

Keeping an organization in a productive zone of disequilibrium is a delicate task; in the practice of leadership, you must keep your hand on the thermostat. If the heat is consistently too low, people won’t feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions. If it’s consistently too high, the organization risks a meltdown: People are likely to panic and hunker down.

Levy kept the heat up after the financial emergency passed. In a move virtually unprecedented
for a hospital, he released public quarterly reports on medical errors and set a goal of eliminating those errors within four years. Although the disclosures generated embarrassing publicity, Levy believed that acknowledging and learning from serious mistakes would lead to improved patient care, greater trust in the institution, and long-term viability.

Maintaining the right level of disequilibrium requires that you depersonalize conflict, which naturally arises as people experiment and shift course in an environment of uncertainty and turbulence. The aim is to focus the disagreement on issues, including some of your own perspectives, rather than on the interested parties.

But the issues themselves are more than disembodied facts and analysis. People’s competencies, loyalties, and direct stakes lie behind them. So you need to act politically as well as analytically. In a period of turmoil, you must look beyond the merits of an issue to understand the interests, fears, aspirations, and loyalties of the factions that have formed around it.

Orchestrating conflicts and losses and negotiating among various interests are the name of the game. That game requires you to create a culture of courageous conversations. In a period of sustained uncertainty, the most difficult topics must be discussed. Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candor and risk taking.

Early in 2009, with Beth Israel Deaconess facing a projected $20 million annual loss after several years of profitability, Paul Levy held an employee meeting to discuss layoffs. He expressed concern about how cutbacks would affect low-wage employees, such as housekeepers, and somewhat cautiously floated what seemed likely to be an unpopular idea: protecting some of those low-paying jobs by reducing the salary and benefits of higher-paid employees -- including many sitting in the auditorium.

To his surprise, the room erupted in applause. His candid request for help led to countless suggestions for cost savings, including an offer by the 13 medical department heads to save 10 jobs through personal donations totaling $350,000. These efforts ultimately reduced the
number of planned layoffs by 75%.

Excerpted from Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, July/August 2009.