Individual best health depends on organizational best health. I spent a valuable portion of my professional career working in behavioral health. Organizations and individuals all suffer tragedies from time to time. Many similarities exist between organizational improvement and personal recovery. For example, an addicted person follows a longstanding behavior without question. The behavior affects the addict negatively, even tragically, but definitely results in poor performance. Resistance to change is fierce. The addict will not be forced to change. When the addict perceives the hopeless of the addiction, usually in a heightened state of collapse and despair, he or she becomes open to exploring new behavior patterns and significant belief systems become rearranged, thus creating positive change and subsequent improvement. Paradoxically, hope evolves from despair or surrender. Healing occurs first in the spirit, then in the mind and last in the body.
Best health includes improvisation in the relationship between health professionals and those in their care. One picture of improvisation is discretion to customize response and interaction and go off script and track with each individual’s or families journey. Yet the capacity of health professionals to remain up-to-date in their knowledge, compliant with practice and regulation, and productive while still able to be kind and improvise approaches possessing a superpower. As Kate commented yesterday, other knowledge workers – teachers – have the same challenges.
What conditions release the inner improviser? Let’s consider a few: clarity of purpose; trust and team dynamics; predictability and responsiveness of systems; and ability to learn from the improv: fix what seems broken.
Clarity of purpose can be mission, focus on the task at hand, or even clear boundaries. Every organization I’ve worked for had a mission statement. St. Peter’s Health Care Services (SPHCS) in Albany, NY, was committed to being a transforming healing presence in the communities we serve. Like the golden rule, easy to say, tough to do. Difficult decisions at SPHCS often included explicit consideration of the mission. Focusing on the task at hand is mindfulness. As in right now the task at hand is pain relief, teaching, mobility, whatever. Not my co-worker, not the next person who needs me, not Dancing with the Stars. Concentration. Zen. Finally, improvisation occurs within boundaries – knowing the tune. For health workers the tune is policies and procedures, regulations, standards of practice.
Trust and team dynamics. Sustaining kindness and improvisation without feeling trust in yourself and your team truly IS superpower. Good team dynamics are healthy relationships – role clarity, communication that greases the constant shifting and movement of the day’s flow, re-prioritization, and mutual helpfulness.
Predictability and responsiveness of systems used by your team – workflow, supply chain, information systems. Knowledge workers create work arounds when systems don’t work quite right. They ingeniously seek a state where they can accomplish their daily tasks productively. Disruption of these systems draws valuable energy away from kindness and improvisation.
If all the stars are in alignment and staff feels able and empowered to improvise, we are idiots if we don’t learn and fix. Some proportion of improv is kindness and some is in response to something that is broken. Often both. Lord, I feel another post coming on.
I contend that the most important job of leaders – the people who supervise those who touch the public – is to nurture the environment of kindness and improvisation. Nurture the environment and model the behavior.
Why improv and health leadership? Health experience is unique, of the moment, a journey. A different possible riff every moment.
The patient, client, consumer (let me use the term consumer for now) expects safe, quality, kind, empathetic care and service from professionals and their organizations-it’s a given. Even when safe, quality, and kind are present the health journey can be a very rough road. The challenge for the professional and support staff is to maximize the ability to know and relate to consumers as individuals and respond to the roadblocks, detours, potholes of that journey.
The compliments my peers hear about health care are not usually about saving a life, successful surgery, hand washing. Rather it’s about the housekeeper who brought coloring books to the child; it’s about the nurse who knew the child’s passion for Ninja Turtles and brought a Ninja Turtle balloon to the bedside or exam room; it’s about the doctor who called the family on her day off; it’s about the registrar who found a private space for a mother to breast feed a non-patient child. These leverage the whole experience positively.
The relationship between professional caregivers and consumers includes constant improv-discretion to customize response and interaction and go off script. Yet the capacity of caregivers to stay up-to-date in their knowledge, compliant with practice and regulation, and productive while still able to improvise approaches superpower.
How can professionals and support staff tap their inner superpower without the intentional complicity of their leaders? Health leaders model and create the conditions that cultivate and learn from this improv. More about those conditions in the next blog.