Reaching for the Stars

The summer holiday was a good chance to settle down with a good book, and this year I resolved to go beyond my chick-lit and John Grisham collections. Last autumn I wrote about “Better” by Atul Gawande, and this year it was another of his books that formed my more cerebral reading material. I wasn’t disappointed.

Gawande is a surgeon, and in his sphere of experience, the stakes are high. New techniques must be learned and practiced and although simulations of surgery are possible, there is little replacement for the real thing. But innovation requires risk taking, and risk taking requires an understanding and acceptance that part of this process is getting things wrong.

In Gawande’s world this risks lives or other complications as a result of surgery, but without this innovation, we wouldn’t have even attempted to transplant organs, replace heart valves or a thousand other procedures. It all starts with someone who is bold enough to dream the impossible and be confident enough to try it.

“We want expertise and progress. What nobody wants to face is that these are contradictory desires”

Atul Gawande.

Fanning the spark of an idea and coaxing it into a full on inferno creates a steep learning curve. The learning curve however, does not rely on simple trial and error. Gawande observes the things that can be done that have a dramatic, positive impact on that learning curve. Being more deliberate about how new methods are trained is one of those.

When funds are limited we often try the training approach that in manufacturing terms was always described as “sitting next to Bessie”. This is an informal approach that assumes that we can all train each other and ourselves by watching how someone else does it. This has a benefit to a point but risks perpetuating bad habits as they are learned as “fact”.

This was dangerous in a previous role of mine in engineering when someone making electrical connectors for the Typhoon jet decided that he got a better join using lower temperature solder as it was easier to work with. This was without understanding the operating temperature of the jet, which would melt that solder risking the system controlling pilot navigation, oxygen and weapons systems failing mid-air. Whoops. That was a multi-million pound product recall. Maybe if he had been formally trained by a specialist he may not have used his initiative to such effect.

As well as being deliberate about how we train people, we can track progress. Monitoring new processes or methods to see what is working (or who it is working for) and use that data to tweak performance can see results improve more quickly.

Let’s not hide our light under a bushel. If someone is getting good results, lets interrogate why and how so that we can share this more widely. When someone isn’t getting the results, again, what is different about them and their approach and how can we change it?

Gawande is quite clear that when trying something new, results get worse before they get better as new practices are embedded. During this time, effort matters. Diligence matters and in his words “attention to the minutest detail can save you”.

Ok, saving yourself in the classroom is a little different to avoiding nicking a major blood vessel mid-op, but the sentiment holds. Teachers who pay attention to the details of their class will get better results.

Sweating the small stuff goes against the self-help books, but noticing when a child is out of sorts can result in earlier interventions to support them back to performing to their potential. Noticing trends in data can give a school the edge in getting teachers back on track. This is not just about data and assessment. There is a genuine complaint about the burden these place on teachers, but sometimes we need data to back our intuition and be a lever for change.

There is much more to “Complications” than I have written here, and I have saved some for another day, but I wanted to leave you with something that resonates with me.

“It isn’t reasonable to ask that we achieve perfection. What is reasonable to ask is that we never cease to aim for it”

We all have “good enough” days; we are after all human and affected by influences in our relationships, health and personal lives that impact on our delivery in whatever roles we hold, both personal and professional.

Some days we may be the “good enough” parent, with a meal on the table that is more oven-chips than home-grown or cooked from scratch. Some days I’m the “good enough” HR Consultant when I choose to go to work rather than nurse a stinking cold at home in bed (other times, naturally I aim for fabulous!).

What doesn’t change though is the desire to aim high. If we don’t aim for the stars we can never reach them. 

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