How Physicians Can Navigate the Turbulence of Change

July 31, 2016

Navigating a change in your practice is a lot like going through turbulence in a plane. What can physicians learn from pilots?

Earlier this spring, I attended a flight safety review lecture on flying in turbulence. When I reviewed my notes afterwards, I noticed a powerful analogy for leading change.

When turbulence is encountered, there are two things pilots do to safely fly through it. First, they pull back on the throttle and reduce their airspeed. They want to slow down in order to minimize the risk of damaging the airframe. Second, they only worry about maintaining the correct attitude. Their goal is to keep the wings and nose level and concentrate on staying the course. They don't worry so much about their altitude. They go along with the bumps as best they can. They avoid fighting the turbulence with large corrective actions. Instead, they make small adjustments to maintain their attitude and course heading. Finally, they make certain they're buckled up in their seat because it's going to be a bumpy ride.

I think leading change for physicians is similar to flying in turbulence. They are some important things to keep in mind if you wish to successfully lead change in your organization.

Slow Down When Things Get Bumpy

Change is uncomfortable and challenging. No one really likes change. When you experience bumps in your change initiatives, slow down. Take time to determine the reason for the turbulence and why and where it might be coming form. Pilots use weather forecasts to plan their flights. They know when turbulence might be encountered. As a physician, it's valuable to plan out your change process for your practice and be prepared. An important question to ask is "Is it more important the change was accomplished or that the organization is intact after transitioning the change?" For unplanned turbulence, slow down and talk with your people. As a physician leader in your organization, it's your job to guide it through change so that they exit it intact and better for it. Ask questions and try to identify what is causing the turbulence. What's the source of the bumps - a personnel or personal issue or is it an operational issue? Slowing down will give you time to adjust the controls and focus on your attitude.

Your Attitude - The Most Important Thing to Focus On

After you've slowed down a bit, you then want to carefully monitor and manage your attitude. The word attitude is wonderful in this context because it has two distinct and important meanings. First, as with flying, maintaining your attitude means staying on course and continuing to move towards your goal. In flight, you want to keep your wings and nose level. Otherwise, the plane might get into a dangerous position such as a steep turn, stall, or nosedive. If you're not careful, you'll eventually crash. When leading change, stay focused on your attitude and heading. Use small corrections to keep the organization level as you keep it moving towards the intended destination. The second meaning refers to managing yourself.

Here attitude means controlling how you think and feel about the change and the people you're trying to help change. Thoughts and behaviors always precede any actions you may take. That's why it's critical you monitor, manage, and display the proper attitude to those you are leading. Don't forget the importance of the example we set for others. We lead not only with our words, but our actions, behaviors, and attitudes. Others will follow our lead so have a good attitude and serve as a good role model for your people. One way to help you maintain the proper attitude is to buckle up.

Please Fasten Your Seatbelts

During turbulence inflight, items frequently will get tossed around the cockpit. As a leader, one of things being tossed around cannot be you. Take time to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for the upcoming bumpy ride. Understand and accept you'll be shaken and jarred by others during the change process. You'll get through it easier if you have planned for it. It's a lot easier to maintain your attitude and attitude if you're securely fastened in your own seat. If you are ready for it mentally and emotionally, then you have more energy to focus on maintaining your course.

Share and Share Alike

Pilots will issues reports to air traffic control about the turbulence they experience. Air traffic control then passes this information on other pilots flying in the same area. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your organization is to get involved in leadership and trade organizations. Look for other practices who have been where you're headed or are going through the same bumpy areas. Learn from them and more importantly, share what you've learned. Help each other out when you can. It'll pay you dividends in the future. If you fly commercially, you might feel the plane slow down and the seatbelt sign illuminates before any bumps are encountered. The reason is because someone ahead of you shared important information. With the right information, you can warn people of the upcoming bumps. Their orange juice might be spilled but you can make certain they aren't surprised. 

Remember, when you hit bumpy times in your change, slow down, maintain a proper attitude, buckle up, and share what you've learned from your experience. If you do these things, you'll be a better leader and more effective in implementing your change.