The Doctor Is In

I went to my primary care physician this week for my annual physical. I use the term “annual” loosely as it has been four years since my last one. Not a recommended approach to preventative health care. He ran several tests and had already sent me for some rather invasive procedures that are a regular thing when one reaches a certain age. The results were all good. Not great, though. There is room for improvement, if I am willing to make some lifestyle changes.

There are so many things that, if caught early and treated promptly, can be minor issues. Those same things, left undiagnosed and untreated, can become life altering or even life ending. The difference between those two outcomes is monitoring and maintenance. Regularly checking key factors and comparing them to the historic values gives the doctor the ability to determine when something is shifting in the wrong direction. The critical part is having historic values.

With so much going on, it can be difficult to notice subtle shifts that occur slowly. Additionally, complex systems tend to compensate for things that are just a little off. If a slight muscle weakness caused you to be unable to stand or walk, your body wouldn’t be very helpful. Instead, other muscles join in and cooperate to support the area of weakness, often in undetectable ways.

This ability to compensate is both a miraculous advantage and a dangerous trap. What allows us to continue to function through minor injuries and disruptions can also mask the slow drift into serious illness. My doctor told me they have seen a significant rise in colon cancers since COVID because people quit getting checked. They mistakenly think they are well because they don’t feel sick.

Much like our bodies, communities are complex organisms too. A community can adjust and compensate as members of the group shift and go through periods of varying levels of health and productivity. Functioning, however, does not equal healthy, and, like our bodies, a community can slowly drift into more serious illness without really noticing the change.

So, what is the “doctor” for a community?

The doctor for a community or organization is leadership. It is the function of leadership to proactively monitor the health of the community and prescribe “lifestyle” changes to correct the drift towards illness. There are many ways to do this, but I would like to highlight a few here.

My doctor is no help to me if I am not seeing him. In leadership, the “doctor” must go to the patient. We must be present in our organizations to sense when things are not going well. “I’m in my office every day!” I can hear you say. By present, I mean really positioning yourself to see and hear what is going on at all levels of the organization.

I always struggle to set and keep those pesky “well” visits with my doctor, but those are the most important ones. Likewise, the time we spend just walking around our offices and factories, talking to people, maybe sharing a cup of coffee, can be the most valuable time we spend at work. It is in those moments that we might recognize the early warning signs of a more serious problem.

When I go see the doc, he asks me a lot of questions. My answers are a critical part of his process to determine my current health and any potential problems. If I don’t tell him the truth or leave out critical information, he will be unable to accurately diagnose me. I must trust him and be open with him.

Likewise, we must cultivate and support a culture of open and honest dialogue between team members. The first step to gaining trust is to give it. If I am guarded and untrusting of my team, they will be the same with me. In relationships where there is a power imbalance, the person with the power must make the initial move. As a leader, you cannot gain the trust of your team if you will not trust them first.

One of the things my doctor does is run blood tests to see how certain indicators are doing. He has been doing this for many years and has the historical data to compare against, in addition to the “normal” ranges for each measurement. We need to measure our organizations over time and compare previous data sets to current ones to see if there is a slow change that indicates a concern.

There are many ways to accomplish this, from hiring an outside firm to conduct an assessment, to doing your own informal review. What is critical is to have measurements you are repeating and tracking to see when things are shifting. However, like those indicators my doctor watches, measurements cannot replace a comprehensive understanding of the system. My doctor knows me; likewise, leaders must know and understand their organizations.

Leaders cannot assume their organizations are healthy without seeing the “doctor” occasionally. If we want our communities to be healthy, we must lead by example and be healthy ourselves. Taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional health puts us in position to be able to sense when our team’s health needs some care. Communities that practice preventative care are great places for people to do life, and they are the “practice” of the Kimray Way.