“Don’t wait.” That was it. That was the advice given to me by one of the most business savvy and successful executives I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. It was the early 2000s. I was part of a start-up business in the greater Boston area that trained high- level athletes, business executives and their teams to enhance performance under pressure. Our primary investor (“Tom”) was a very successful CEO whose family had built up and recently sold their business for over $5 billion. Needless to say, whenever he spoke, he had my attention. We were talking one afternoon about our start-up’s strategic plan and the fact that I thought it wasn’t quite right. It needed tweaking. As I was explaining my rationale, Tom leaned forward, looked me in the eye and calmly said, “Don’t wait.” He sat back and let the words land. I can hear his voice like it just happened, and I’ve never forgotten it. It was some of the most profound advice I’ve ever received regarding what it takes to be successful in any business. And the words are just as true today as they were then.
What Tom was telling me was so simple: Don’t wait until our plan is perfect before taking action. In other words, a perfect plan unexecuted is just words on a page. Seems like a version of this adage has been around since humans figured out they needed to think through how to get things done. Most certainly the concept of strategic planning has shown to differentiate winners from losers in arenas as diverse as business, sports, law, and, yes, dentistry. But for as long as planning has been a virtue, so has the ability to execute. In fact, I believe that success in virtually any meaningful, professional endeavor, especially that which requires any semblance of extended perseverance, is achieved more as a function of one’s ability to implement and execute in the midst of imperfection rather than one’s ability to achieve perfection. Stated another way, I believe the results you want in your practice are closer than you might think IF you can overcome the desire to have a perfect plan before dedicating yourself to relentless implementation. Get used to being imperfect, and push forward!
Implementation is where the real work happens, and the real results come. So why is implementation so difficult? I’ve spent years focused on attempting to answer this question for myself and for my clients. Yet, while the answer is certainly complex and multi-layered, at least one contributing factor keeps coming to the forefront: our brains.
Similar to when we get scared when we hear a bump in the night or when we get defensive when someone criticizes us seemingly out of the blue, “human nature” at least in part explains why we struggle so mightily with implementing new protocols, especially over the long run. Think of the difference between January and March at the gym. We start off with the best of intentions doing something that we KNOW is good for us in many, wide-ranging ways. Yet, in January the gym is packed, and by March it’s a ghost town. In your dental practice, you think it makes perfect sense to work on improving communication by having set meeting times each month or even each week where you touch base with key team members. You stick to it for a while, but patient emergencies and life, in general, get in the way; and before you know it, you’ve gone months without talking to your team. When we say, “Oh that’s just human nature,” what we’re really saying without realizing it is, “Oh that’s just our pesky brains.”
The brain’s primary organizing principle as it relates to day-to-day living is to minimize threat and maximize reward, and our brains lean toward minimizing threat first. Makes sense since survival is our priority, first and foremost. Each situation or person we encounter throughout a day is subconsciously assessed as to its level of threat. If the situation is ambiguous, we will typically react with caution.
Yet, implementation is also where the greatest threats to our egos and sense of status and belonging lie. How the brain responds to the grind of implementation explains a great deal of why most of us struggle to follow through, particularly when the tough times come. Why do we wait or avoid? It’s in the pressure of implementation that we learn the truth about ourselves. And the truth might reveal that we don’t have all the answers like we’re supposed to. Think about it. It’s easier to execute without the pressure of needing to achieve results right now. Yet, the dental business environment, and in many respects our personal lives, demand swift, decisive action, even if it’s not perfect.
So how do we take the pressure off getting results while still getting stuff done? It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro athlete or a dentist, start with your fundamentals, which is to say SIMPLIFY! I have found simplicity, as a theme, is a great place to start to gain clarity and take a step or perhaps even a leap toward becoming a stronger “implementer.” Look for opportunities to simply take the NEXT step toward improvement. That’s it. Then do it again and again. Applying a “one step at a time” approach helps to keep your focus off the future and all the ways things can go wrong, and, instead, keeps your focus on what you can control in the moment. This minimizes the brain’s natural inclination to put the brakes on and bail out of the implementation process.
How do you simplify? Try this strategy with any challenge you’re currently facing in your practice: Using a piece of paper or a flip chart, in 30 seconds or less, simultaneously draw and clearly explain the challenge AND one small step you and your team could take to make it better. If you can draw and explain it, chances are good you and your team can begin to feel a sense of control over the implementation process and make improvements today. That’s all it takes to start. One idea to get better and the courage to do it. That was Tom’s (the start-up investor) point. He was trying to teach me that all of us on our start-up team already had the intangible tools we needed to succeed. We were smart enough to figure out the rest along the way. But we needed to GO! The same is true for you as a dentist. You already have the tools to be successful or else you wouldn’t be where you are. Trust yourself, and GO!