Push your practice out of its comfort zone

"You only ever grow as a human being if you're outside your comfort zone." --Percy Cerutty, track and field coach.

I've always believed in this quote, but never so much as I have since completing my first Tough Mudder obstacle run last weekend. Even as a lifelong distance runner, this type of event was never exactly on my bucket list. Endurance training is plenty satisfying without barbed wire and mild electric shocks, I thought, and that was before I knew about the 15-foot water plunge. But when my cousin asked me to join his team back in December, I just couldn't say no.

But I said "no" (among other words) plenty over the four grueling hours up and down that muck-laden mountain. Somewhere around the middle of the 10-mile course, we were supposed to climb over a 10-foot wall. Unlike prior obstacles that at least included a rope to pull ourselves up with, this one was almost double my height and offered barely a fingertip-wide crevice between horizontal slats.

As with all the challenges, participants could opt to simply go around--and individually I felt zero shame in doing that. "I just can't do that. There's no way," I told my teammates.

"Yes, you can," they said--firmly. And next thing I knew they lifted me up by my feet. The top of the wall was still over my head. My sweaty fingertips gripped the top, but I couldn't pull myself up.

"I'm sorry, guys," I called, expecting they'd lower me back down. Instead, I felt a surge of power under my feet, as they hoisted me up on fully extended arms, high enough so I could pull myself up and over the rest of the way, then hang and drop safely on the other side.

A tiny fraction of the physical effort to get there was mine, but I was still astonished to find myself in the shade of the backside of that wall. My reward? Another identical wall immediately after it, which my teammates heroically pushed me up and over in half the time of the first. Other teammates and participants we didn't know pushed them over as well, and the chain of camaraderie and achievement continued throughout the entire course.

Other than the mountain itself, this was a man-made challenge we faced voluntarily. In your medical practice, as in life, there will be equally, if not more, daunting obstacles, and you won't have the option to just walk around.

But you don't need to sign up for a day of physical torture to get over professional walls. I strongly recommend, however, that you:

  • Push your employees out of their comfort zone. That shy back-office biller? Put him or her at the front desk for a few hours every month or so, not just for the sake of cross-training, but to help him overcome his fears. We talk a lot in FiercePracticeManagement about engaging employees, but there's possibly no better way to do so than believing in people more than they do in themselves.

  • Promote and reward team accomplishments. Of course, people must be held accountable for individual performance, but "team-based care" is not just a catchphrase. Your physicians and employees must be able to rely on one another. At times, a few people will shoulder the burden to benefit the many--and your office culture needs to make that okay. At the beginning of the Tough Mudder, the announcer had us all raise our hands and repeat that we understood we were not about to begin a race, but a challenge--that we would put helping others above our individual finish time. In other words, a team strategy is great, but it only works if everybody believes in it.

  • Learn from experience. I don't have any immediate plans to tackle these obstacles again, but there are countless things I'd do differently if I did, from training to choosing clothing to strategizing individual elements. Even if you don't think you're going to go through a certain process again, make note of what you could do better. Take electronic health record implementation as an example. Chances are, you will switch systems at some point, and can make each time smoother than the last. But there are larger lessons to learn from every experience. For me, the next time I get invited to spend a day putting my mind and body through the wringer, I'll skip the time I wasted being nervous and remember how gratifying it feels to land on the other side of the wall. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)