Are you telling the right story? - Veterinary Practice
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Are you telling the right story?

Chris Whipp examines the concept of stories in the context of running a veterinary practice and suggests that taking such an approach can pay dividends.

AS HUMAN BEINGS WE ARE HARDWIRED to seek out, engage with and act upon the stories that we experience and yet in business, frequently, the wrong stories are being told in the wrong context or in the wrong way. Understanding the story being played out can greatly enhance outcomes, build staff buy-in and ease the process of change.

Every practice has its own story; it may have been open a day, a month, a year, a decade or a century. It may be growing, static or declining. It may be happy, dysfunctional or downright toxic but one thing is certain: it will be changing, wishing to change or vehemently resisting change.

When looking at any change (story), it is valuable to look at the relationship between agreement, predictability of outcome and discomfort. The Stacey agreement/certainty matrix is a very good way of looking at this.

From this we can develop three general stories about how things are; the linear, the emergent and the structured stories that help us cope with the situation we are in.

The rational (linear model) in the bottom left of the matrix is the most comfortable of situations in that agreement is high and you can be reasonably certain of outcomes.

Most science sits within this small box and this is the type of environment that our training has prepared us for. Risk is low; cause and effect are both close to each other and predictable in their relationship. Management is about pulling the levers and producing the outcome. It might be looked at almost in a mechanistic manner.

The information explosion of the latter half of the 20th century has changed the business environment in a fundamental way. Dr Google might be convenient but he produces multiple answers with significant reliability and evidentiary issues. This is reflected in all areas where options have blossomed but making decisions has become increasingly less easy.

There is, no longer, one true answer. Agreement has started to break down as has predictability of outcome which has, in turn, led to a greater sense of uncertainty and discomfort.

We have moved from the rational linear world to the realm of complex systems where innovation and creativity can produce stunning results within the practice environment. Rather than looking at your practice simply as a machine, you might look at it more like a biological organism with all of the feedback loops, adaptive and self-protective behaviours that we know from our clinical work but not from our business training.

Taken further, agreement and predictability of outcomes may break down completely with complex systems becoming chaotic and discomfort can become extreme or even overwhelming. No practice would willingly move into this space, but some occasionally find themselves there due to external factors.

For the rest of us, we have a choice where on this matrix we wish to operate. The stories are different for each as are the risks and benefits and each tell a different story, but by engaging with the correct story we can be more successful.

The linear story

This is the story we are all familiar with: it is comfortable and predictable if, perhaps, not very exciting. Importantly, it is congruent with the way we have been trained and with the way our brains tend to work. Outcomes may not be spectacular, but risks are low and life is likely to be predictable.

The emergent story

This is both a more exciting and scarier story: outcomes can be spectacular, but so can the ops and the art is to balance the potential gains against the potential losses.

Many practices aspire to the creativity and innovation of this zone but are held back by their training, managing their staff to remove risk with an unhealthy focus on failure. Knowing some of the characteristics of complex systems can help with the story.

As you can see, this is quite different from the linear story and the rules are quite different too, unlike the mechanistic linear model where the leader may just pull levers and see immediate results. In the emergent story the leader is facilitating and guiding, more than controlling and determining.

Leaders provide:

  • Direction – some of the key goals
  • Boundaries – limits and things to avoid
  • Resources – to get the job done
  • Space for innovation – permission to do things differently
  • And set and maintain the real values

The leader creates the conditions that allow successful outcomes to emerge. Letting change occur rather than making change happen is the essence of the difference between the two stories and it requires a lighter, more game-oriented approach.

Central to successful application in practice is the importance of good conversations. The quality of the conversations defines the quality of the relationships and the quality of the relationships defines the strength of the system (practice).

Practices may aspire to more innovative and creative approaches, but often limit themselves to the rational/linear box.

The structured story

This should not normally be required but if the practice is in a chaotic space this offers a top-down approach which helps hold the anxiety in a manageable way and still allows useful work to be done on the context. You may not know where you are, where you are going or how you are going to get there but you can, nonetheless, make the best of the situation.

By knowing where your practice truly is, which story is most appropriate/relevant to you and how to complete the story in the best possible way, you can avoid an enormous amount of stress and distress for both you and every member of your team.

If you would like more information, drop me an e-mail to

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