SHSMD Spectrum Newsletter


Print this Article

Marketing in Prime Position to Serve as ‘Chief Collaborator’ of the Hospital System
Spectrum Health has championed a scenario planning process to bust through silos and collaborate with other departments amid the COVID-19 pandemic

With COVID-19 affecting so many facets of the health care enterprise, hospital systems are in need of a “chief collaborator” to guide conversations between many disparate departments. Who better to fill this role than marketing, which speaks for the consumer and can steer big-picture conversations toward patient needs?

This has become the case at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where marketers started using the practice of scenario planning to confront challenges and help plan for uncertainty. More recently, Senior Director of Strategic Marketing Holly Sullivan engaged with a broader audience to get cross-functional input and collaboration on key “problems to solve.”

“COVID was on everyone’s windshield across the organization. Being able to talk about solutions that affected all of the different areas really opened our eyes to possibilities we had not thought of before,” said Sullivan. “Usually we would say ‘finance would never go for this’ or ‘operations can’t support that.’ But they were right in the room.”

Sullivan and Alicia Graham, Accenture’s managing director, health and public service lead, discussed the power of scenario planning during a recent Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD) workshop. Graham said she’s had many conversations with health system executives in strategy, marketing, innovation, IT and digital about the need for such a facilitator to guide strategy and investment from an organization-wide perspective.

“Sometimes we also see the position coming out of a strategy group. Other times it’s digital or IT because there is an investment being made,” said Graham, “but I do think that marketing is in a really important position and scenario planning can help you become that chief collaborator in your organization.”

Caught Off Guard
When the first wave of COVID-19 hit last spring, Spectrum Health, like many other organizations, was alarmed, said Sullivan, who is also immediate past president of the SHSMD board. The crisis had members of her team operating reactively and putting in 80-hour work weeks to field every request. “We were scrambling, honestly,” she said.  

The 14-hospital system wanted to enter future waves prepared for whatever might come next. Sullivan said their first scenario planning step was to uncover any difficult decisions they needed to make and proactively prepare for shifting conditions in the market. The system’s internal brand-tracking tool said Spectrum Health was gaining ground as a community leader and leaders wanted to maintain such respect.

She and colleagues saw an opening to coalesce around possible future outcomes, move away from their reactionary posture and relieve stressed-out team members, Sullivan recalled.

“It was a perfect opportunity to use a construct like this. Everyone came together from a lot of different areas of the organization as a way to integrate, co-create and think through a problem together,” she said. “We were all talking about this scenario and trying to solve business decisions together.”

Next, Spectrum Health leaders moved to a “hunting and gathering” phase of seeking out questions they needed to ask and different dynamics that might drive the answers. Sullivan gave the example of four factors she and colleagues considered during the pandemic: infection rates, vaccine availability, consumers’ levels of fear and confidence, and preferences around virtual or face-to-face care.

Leaders from across the enterprise worked through various questions stemming from combinations of those scenarios. ‘How might we build consumer trust and confidence?’ ‘How can we transform or change the care model?’ and ‘In what ways would we support clinicians and staff members?’ As part of this, they also worked through an empathy map to understand potential consumer behaviors, beliefs, and queries.

Spectrum Health further contemplated potential jobs that would need to be done in each scenario. Those could include providing clarity on how and when to seek help for a COVID case, informing and operating as a source of truth, or inspiring and leading a movement to help bring the community together.

As the team determined which situations were likely to play out, they began composing “plots” of what would transpire and rehearsing how they’d respond.

“The word scenario comes from ‘script,’ so it is a little bit like writing a play and thinking about what story you’re telling,” Graham said.

Sullivan said Spectrum Health spent about four hours brainstorming with a group of individuals including human resources, finance, marketing, and operations. They left the room aligned on a plan with a new-found appreciation for what other departments faced.

“It was a fantastic exercise for us and really helped me understand all of the complexities of these scenarios and how our actions affected each other,” Sullivan said.

Art vs. Science
Graham believes scenario planning helps health systems better understand uncertainty and separate the plausible from the possible. She acknowledges that the process is more artful and emotive than scientific.

“This isn’t about revealing one potential future and betting on it,” Graham added. “You’re giving people a tool to see the future they maybe don’t want to see. It can be provocative and challenging and that’s important. That’s part of the process.”

Sullivan said leadership has latched onto the idea and it has helped Spectrum Health became nimbler to address the evolving COVID crisis. She sees a promising horizon for these tactics beyond the pandemic.

“This planning tool has really helped Spectrum Health navigate and better prepare for future uncertainties and solve problems using integrated, cross-functional teams. There is certainly a lot more future planning we need to do around other topics using this same approach,” she said.


This article features interviews with:

Alicia Graham
Managing Director, Health & Public Service Lead
Accenture Interactive
San Francisco, California 

Holly Sullivan
Immediate past-president of SHSMD Board
Senior Director, Strategic Marketing
Spectrum Health
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Image credits: |


Back to SHSMD Spectrum Newsletter