August 25, 2020

New online Purdue course brings Agile approach to solving health care’s ‘wicked problems’

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Even before the pandemic, health care was a complex business with multilayered challenges begging for innovative approaches to problem solving and finding breakthrough solutions. COVID-19 has only ramped up the stakes and made the need more pressing.

With a new online course called Agile Strategy for Healthcare’s Wicked Problems, Purdue University is aiming to help fill the need for collaborative teams skilled at developing shared solutions. The course teaches learners how to apply principles of Strategic Doing, a 10-step practice for more effective collaboration and innovation in a health care setting – a focus unique to Purdue’s latest Agile course.

Doctors, nurses and pharmacists can earn accredited continuing education credit for the course. But the potential audience doesn’t stop there.

“Really, its focus is to change thinking, action and behavior for almost anyone involved in a leadership role in health care at every level,” said Sharon Murphy Enright, who developed and teaches the course. “It fits in any complex environment, which is the very nature of health care. It provides a skill set, a mindset that’s totally different from the way we have been trained and acclimated in health care.”

Murphy Enright, whose background is pharmacy, systems thinking and change management, has decades of experience leading nontraditional development and consulting programs in the health care industry to enhance medication safety, population health, leadership development, and organizational performance improvement. She’s a winner of the Harvey A.K. Whitney Lecture Award, considered the highest honor in health-system pharmacy.

“She has been on the leading edge of training pharmacists and interdisciplinary teams of health care practitioners her entire career,” said Kyle Hultgren, director of the Center for Medication Safety at Purdue, who served as one of the test students for Purdue’s new online Agile health care course.

Dan Degnan, associate director of the Purdue College of Pharmacy’s Professional Program Laboratories, is the other instructor for the course.

Steve Abel, Purdue associate provost of engagement, enlisted Murphy Enright, a longtime colleague, to lead the course. He encountered Agile practice when he took on his engagement role at the University and trained as a facilitator. He was struck almost immediately by its utility to health care, reflecting on how it could have benefitted him during his 20 years as a leader in the pharmacy field.

“If I would have had this tool, it would have made my life incredibly easier,” Abel said.

The Agile methodology takes an iterative approach to big problems, breaking them into stages. Consistent communication and collaboration among team members and stakeholders leads to continuous improvement at each stage and guides prioritization of tasks, to be completed on a defined schedule. The practice is useful for almost any project and especially for high uncertainty projects where requirements are not well understood or are rapidly evolving.

“Uncertain” is one of the words Murphy Enright uses to describe the health care environment, (along with ambiguous, complex and volatile). It is the kind of environment Agile practice was made for, and students who take Purdue’s online course will come away ready to apply the methodology.

“You’re going to get a new set of tools that you can use in a lot of places,” Degnan said. “You will have a framework for solving problems that have been nagging at you. These are the ‘wicked problems’ for which there are no easy and immediate solutions, that plague organizations repeatedly over time.”

Among other things, the course explores changes that are occurring in health care and underlying shifts driving them. It covers topics such as identifying emerging challenges; defining the wicked problems involved; and applying key decision-making, leadership and organizational behavior techniques to yield innovation and transformation. Other topics include promoting communication and collaboration, and building collaborative teams that function not only in defining and addressing problems but also help drive organizational change.

Hultgren said the course isn’t just an academic exercise. It demands active engagement with the curriculum, as well as the instructors, and deep consideration of how the Agile framework taught can be applied to real-world health care challenges. The course is well suited for team-based, collective learning – shared experience that can spark breakthrough change.

“This is not a read this, take a test, move on course,” Hultgren said.

The course also emphasizes each learner’s self-reflection and assessment with an eye to overcoming siloed thinking, which might preclude consideration of useful solutions that don’t exactly conform to traditional biases.

“It’s about learning a new way to collaborate for innovation, for change, for breakthrough,” Murphy Enright said. “It’s truly transformational.”

More information about Purdue’s online Agile Strategy for Healthcare’s Wicked Problems course and to registration are available here.

Writer: Greg Kline, 765-494-8167, gkline@purdue.edu

Sources: Sharon Murphy Enright, smenright@gmail.com

Dan Degnan, ddegnan@purdue.edu

Steve Abel, abels@purdue.edu

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