Healthcare and other industries have to manage and coordinate a number of different aims and longer-term ambitions. They must maintain quality, manage costs, support and retain the workforce, manage regulatory demands, and consider wider societal objectives. These aims are all legitimate, but they are not necessarily aligned, neither in their timeframe nor in their nature. Conflicts between aims have a profound influence on the implementation of safety and quality improvement and wider innovation system change. Healthcare leaders understand that these aims may conflict, but the extent and nature of such conflicts have been underestimated. This paper aims to support medical and nursing leadership and executives in the complex task of managing multiple aims in relation to improvement and innovation.
We drew on our experience and the wider industrial and healthcare literature to find examples of studies and improvement projects with multiple aims and examples of innovation and change in which conflicting aims were apparent. We sought to identify principles which would enable the management of parallel aims and practical strategies that might facilitate implementation.
We argue that almost all improvement and innovation in healthcare should address parallel aims, actively seek to articulate these aims, and manage potential conflicts between them. We propose four underlying principles to support a more productive approach to the identification and management of parallel aims: embrace multiple aims, consider both short- and long-term aims and ambitions, consider the wider societal context, and appreciate that all change takes place within an evolving, dynamic context. In terms of practical actions, we identified five key strategies: (i) identify and monitor the parallel aims and accept that some will conflict; (ii) slow down to accommodate the natural flexibility of the system; (iii) think both short and long term; (iv) expect and endeavour to anticipate some unintended consequences; and (v) resist downgrading the project to partial implementation.
We have argued that most improvement and innovation, unlike controlled trials, should consider multiple aims. We set out some broad principles and practices to reduce conflict and suggest avenues to manage conflicts and support positive synergies. We suggest that if this is not done, conflicts are much more likely to arise, which will be detrimental to the change process. Articulating the multiple aims and actively seeking to manage them in parallel will promote a more flexible and productive approach to innovation and change.