Article Date: 5/1/2006

Optometry and the Art of Improvisation
Good practices follow standards, but what happens when there are no rules?

Jim Thomas

No matter how many rules you establish in your practice, you still face situations that don't fall neatly into the parameters you've set. For example, one of your top performing employees may request extra time off to take care of a family member who is ill.

It's not only a question of "breaking" the rules for unique employee issues. Your office manager might propose switching to an automated billing and coding system or adding new equipment. Your optician might suggest a new, and perhaps costlier, approach to marketing a particular line of frames or lenses.

Just following the rules

In each of these examples, you can choose to follow the rules:

"I'm sorry, but our policy clearly indicates that you receive 15 paid days off this year."

"We can't afford it."

"We don't have the marketing budget to promote a new line."

Or you may determine that it would be best to go beyond the rules to improvise and discover creative solutions. Improvisation can improve communication, foster a creative approach to problem solving and develop staff trust and cooperation. (Note that improvisation is never an excuse for ignoring the rules, a situation that causes serious damage.)

The first rule of improvisation

The key to improvisation is agreement. When you agree, you open the lines of communication and show support and trust. In the example responses, the answer was no — no, you can't have more time off, no we won't follow your proposal and no, we can't accept your marketing suggestion. What's the quickest way to deflate anyone's spirits? Just say no.

Agreement isn't an automatic yes to any proposal, rather it's the recognition that the other person or group has a point of view that isn't necessarily addressed in the current standards. Here's an agreeable response to the issue of paid time off:

"Let's see if we can work together to create a solution that will be fair and allow you to take care of your family."

With this response, you've not only shown that you care, you've emphasized the need to work together so that the employee also bears responsibility for finding a solution that's fair to both the practice and staff. In a similar, real-life case, the entire staff came together and ultimately arrived at a solution, which included a combination of working alternate hours, work at home and unpaid leave.

Once you agree to improvise, then the hard work begins. But it's the kind of work that can add real value to your practice.

Optometric Management, Issue: May 2006