Blog Post
Dr. Sunita Mutha smiling.

Partnering to Solve Complex Problems: Advice from Dr. Sunita Mutha

August 17, 2021

“Show up fully. Move at a slow enough pace that you can be creative together. Leave room to be delighted. Be overly communicative.”

This advice about how to build and nurture partnerships in the face of complex health care challenges was offered by Dr. Sunita Mutha, director of Healthforce Center at UCSF. 

Mutha was a guest on the new California Improvement Network (CIN) podcast that showcases effective ways to establish partnerships between health care organizations and community-based organizations in order to address social determinants of health. As director of Healthforce Center, Mutha and her colleagues have decades of experience developing networks of people and organizations to tackle obstacles in health care delivery and achieve equity in health outcomes. Her advice was offered on the podcast to support the many members of CIN in their efforts to further network and partner with others. 

Complex Problems Require Collective Action

Mutha shared how partnerships help her, both as a physician and in her role at Healthforce Center, to advance the complex work that she strives to make progress on every day. “Working within a complex health care system and trying to solve complex problems within that system is very challenging. Many of the problems we are trying to solve – workforce shortages, building leadership capacity across the field, developing new ways to deliver care, and research to discover new solutions – cannot be solved individually, and require teams and collective action to make progress.”

Such Connections across sectors is one of the five pillars of our work at Healthforce Center. By this we mean that through our connections, we are able to (1) accomplish tasks collectively and (2) network with people and organizations to accomplish tasks. We are not only connecting diverse people and organizations but also diving deep into partnering toward a common objective. 

“The work being done by CIN to nurture and share new ways of approaching primary care, and the work Healthforce Center is doing to improve workforce diversity and tackle health equity and advance science – it all inspires me to show up knowing I’m a part of many teams making inroads on these issues,” added Mutha after the interview.

Trust, Respect, and Mutual Support Sustain Partnerships

In addition to the advice above, Mutha talked about a few other key ways that Healthforce Center staff and faculty approach their work with partners and clients alike. 

Undergirding the idea of “connections across sectors” is the sense that for people to collaborate successfully, there is a need for deep trust and mutual respect among individuals and organizations. Within this space of trust and respect, organizations can do the best work through asking questions, being creative together as partners, and setting realistic expectations for what can be accomplished together. Even if the team members change, as happens when people leave and join teams, the strength of these partnerships lasts. It’s less about the individual and more about the set of core values and behaviors that were created from the start through deep trust and mutual respect.

She also discussed the concept of “failure is learning,” which embraces “failure” as necessary because it helps us to understand what doesn’t work. Piloting programs that test new solutions is a common example of this. Such experimentation enables partners to try out solutions and successfully tackle complex problems. 

Another understanding emphasizes how in times of crisis, strong partnerships can offer mutual support. Often times when individuals or organizations are in a crisis, it’s hard to see outside of the immediate needs while experiencing a sense of depletion and exhaustion. Turning to trusted partners during this time of crisis, knowing that it can’t be fixed alone, allows for more creativity and space to think about how to do something better or differently.

Mutha offers a plethora of other tips, including:

  • How power sharing and testing assumptions supports the best solutions
  • Why icebreakers and humor matter
  • How to sense when a relationship is encountering trouble and ways to get it back on track

Listen to hear all the details in “Applying Your Best Relationship Tools at Work,” episode four of Health Strategies Radio.

Building and sustaining partnerships within health care and across our communities will allow for more creativity and success in solving these complex problems. What will you do differently to engage your partners and deepen the trust and mutual respect you have?

Join Us

Learn more and join the California Improvement Network, which is funded by the California Health Care Foundation and managed by Healthforce Center at UCSF