Professional Point

In a recent column, I wrote about the important role for psychology and psychologists in helping people build resilience in today's increasingly stressful and challenging world. I want to follow up on that theme by focusing on a related issue of building resilience in our profession in an increasingly stressful and challenging health-care world.

Without question, practicing psychologists in today's health-care system face many obstacles. Although there seems to be a growing consensus in the country that a market-driven, managed-care approach to health care clearly is not working, there is no consensus as to how to build a better system. Reform, while perhaps starting to appear on the horizon, continues to be unclear and is likely to be mired in presidential campaign politics for at least another year. Many other forces also contributing to unpredictability in the health-care arena are likely to remain for some time to come. While we continue to work to address obstacles in the system, the process is slow and painstaking in the absence of comprehensive reform.

On one level, building individual resilience could certainly help individual psychologists weather the challenges posed by the broken health-care system and the fits and starts we can expect of reform. What might be more useful, though, is looking at resilience from the perspective of the profession as a whole. A September 2003 Harvard Business Review (Vol. 81, No. 9) article offers a framework for corporations and organizations to enhance their resilience in the wake of turbulent times. Perhaps this framework can be applied to the profession of psychology as well.

According to Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas, authors of the article--"The Quest for Resilience"--strategic resilience for corporations is less about responding to a crisis or about bouncing back from a setback and more about "having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious."

In effect, strategic resilience builds an ingrained agility and flexibility that enables a company to be "constantly making its future rather than defending its past." Reorganization, reengineering or downsizing become unnecessary as evolutionary change takes place in ongoing incremental steps consistent with a goal of "zero trauma" for the company.

Given the degree of flux (if not turmoil) anticipated to continue in the health-care system as Congress and the country struggle to find solutions, the agility and flexibility envisioned by strategic resilience may benefit our profession. Being ahead of the change curve rather than behind it may help psychology toward the goal of "zero trauma," or at least reduced trauma, in the wake of continuing health-care reform.

Implementing strategic resilience in an organization (never mind a profession) is not without its challenges. The Hamel and Valikangas article describes four specific challenges: the cognitive challenge, the strategic challenge, the political challenge and the ideological challenge.

The cognitive challenge is described as the denial, nostalgia and arrogance that prevent recognition and appreciation of what is changing in the surrounding world and how it is likely to affect the company, or in this case the profession of psychology. It results in absolute surprise when the company discovers one day that it can no longer function successfully in the changed world. The counter to this debilitating denial is perhaps best described by Jim Collins in his book, "Good to Great" (HarperCollins, 2001), which looks at what distinguishes good companies from great companies--the need to confront the brutal facts of reality prior to decision-making.

Strategic resilience also requires having alternative plans to implement. The strategic challenge is the difficulty inherent in developing new alternative strategies to replace old strategies that no longer work. Embracing ongoing experimentation of new ideas, new approaches and new strategies is key to overcoming this challenge.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge--the political challenge--is the ability to divert resources away from old programs and strategies to new ideas and approaches. Despite the difficult political process inherent in reallocating resources, to be successful today, companies must, according to Hamel's strategic resilience model, invest in "what could be" and not just "what is."

The final challenge, the ideological challenge, involves moving away from exclusive reliance on optimization. Doing more, better, faster and cheaper is no longer enough to guarantee success, or even survival. An increasing wave of change requires as much emphasis on getting different as it does on getting better. Perpetual renewal is as important as building the foundations for operational efficiency.

If our profession can master these challenges, perhaps we will be in a better position to withstand what lies ahead. Perhaps we will be able to achieve "zero trauma." And, perhaps we will be in a better position to make our future, rather than only defending our past.