When "The Best" isn't Best
A team of individual all-stars will under-perform – even fail – if they can’t function as a whole unit. Just look at the 2004 US Olympic basketball squad.
This isn’t limited to sports.
A veterinary team is NOT as good as its weakest link. You can toss that old adage on the wood pile and burn the shit out of it.
A veterinary team IS as good as its ability to successfully navigate it’s comparative advantage.
Yes, that’s right. I just used a term from economics. And you better get to know it.
Getting the best out of a team depends upon understanding and leveraging their comparative advantage. And the well-being of the team and the individual humans who make it up may very well depend on it.
Back in the day I managed a veterinary hospital myself and my DVM partners had recently purchased. We asked the previous owner’s entire team to stay on and they agreed, including the lead technician, a CVT who the prior owner raved about.
“She’s the most talented tech I’ve ever worked with, “ he told us, and we were excited to have her on our team.
I quickly learned two things about her; that she was a gifted technician and that she believed no one else was (or could be) at her level.
She was as efficient as they came, a wealth of knowledge and experience, hardworking and quick to anticipate and act on doctor’s and patient’s needs. My DVM partners were ecstatic to have someone so talented by their side and felt like there was nothing she couldn’t handle.
And she knew it.
Because she was “the best” at pretty much everything she tried to do everything. Worse, she showed little to no patience with the rest of our technical team, often berating them for not knowing how to do something, lacking in a particular piece of medical knowledge, or for simply being “too slow”.
At first we let this slide. After all, our patient care under her guidance was exceptional and the doctors were completing tasks and procedures at record pace with this technician running the show.
Until the appointment schedule began to fill up. One tech cannot be everywhere at once and do it all. And her unwillingness to elevate the rest of the technicians, not to mention her harsh, biting tone with them, led us to rely on her more and more.
This was not going to work.
Eventually, as it became clear to us we would lose her or the entire rest of the team, we liberated her from her discontent. That’s fancy talk for “we fired her”.
What does this have to do with the concept of comparative advantage?
This technician had an ABSOLUTE advantage over our other technicians in almost every technical skill. She was better at restraint, better at venipuncture, better at radiographs, better at dental prophies, and so on.
So she demanded – and we allowed her – to do it all. She believed that whoever is best at something should always be the one to do it and we swallowed it hook, line, and almost sinker.
There’s a problem with this belief system. If we only follow absolute advantage we are essentially assuming there are only two options; can do it “best” or can’t do it at all. But that’s not how the world really works.
She was the best at venipuncture, sure. But our other techs were perfectly capable of the same skills. They may have been a couple seconds slower or might need “one more stick” to hit the vein. That’s where the concept of COMPARATIVE advantage comes in.
Comparative advantage takes into consideration what economists call the “opportunity cost”. For our purposes, we’ll think of opportunity cost in two ways as it applies to comparative advantage:
The gap between skills. For example, if I can hit a vein with 95% success within 10 seconds and you can hit a vein with 90% success within 10 seconds the gap between our skills is 5%.
The “cost” of having whoever is best skilled for a task perform that task over another task. For example, if 3 dogs come back for blood draws at the same time and we want to get them done as quickly as possible, what’s the “cost” of lost time if I do all the blood draws rather than you and I doing them at the same time?
The Hidden Cost of Ignoring Comparative Advantage in Teams
For the first few months of management and ownership I ignored the concept of comparative advantage in favor of the absolute advantage this single tech brought to the table.
It cost us a lot. In at least two ways:
Looking back, there were definitely times we were actually less efficient in providing medical services because we’d wait for this one tech to do it all rather than let our “slightly less skilled” techs handle things.
With what I know now from the science of positive psychology, I can also see I was harming the well-being of everyone on the team.
In the work I do now as a veterinary workplace well-being strategist I rely on the evidence-based model of human flourishing called PERMA. This model suggests (and the research strongly supports) that when we experience an abundance of Positive Emotion, Engagement, (Positive) Relationships, Meaning, and a sense of Achievement our overall sense of psychological well-being elevates.
In falling pray to this technician’s absolute advantage so consistently I created an environment in which everyone experienced the exact opposite of PERMA. How?
Positive Emotion: This one is pretty obvious. Our lead tech knew she was “the best” and we supported it. The result was blatant verbal mistreatment of the rest of the team since they were “less than.” That cannot have felt good to them.
Engagement: We took away countless opportunities for everyone else to experience engagement in their work. Heck, we took away countless opportunities for them to experience much of anything in their work!
Relationships: In supporting her behavior in favor of “the best should do what they are best at, always” we enabled a climate that fractured the team. Relationships became about whispers and venting in corners as people felt dis-empowered and helpless. Worse, people began to really hate her and we were caught in the middle.
Meaning: When we feel incapable and cast aside in a team the purpose of our work disappears. Without a clear sense of purpose we cannot derive positive meaningfulness. In fact, the rest of the team began to feel showing up at work, much less the work itself, was meaningless.
Achievement: If you are constantly shown how incapable you are and given no opportunity to improve, how could you ever feel a sense of achievement, accomplishment, or growth?
Comparative Advantage and Team Well-being
Stop always relying on the “best person for the job”. Seriously, it doesn’t work, it isn’t always possible, and your insistence on it is harming your team more than it’s helping your need to get shit done.
Here’s some advice on how to toss absolute advantage on the trash heap where it belongs and embrace comparative advantage to boost efficiency and the well-being of your team:
Embrace Truth #1 – “No one can be the best at everything.”
Embrace Truth #2 – “The ‘best’ cannot be available for every task, every time.”
Shift your mindset about the word “strengths”. Strengths don’t need to be about “who is the best at this” – rather, strengths should be about “what are you good at”. Notice I didn’t say “perfect at”, I said good at.
Understand where everyone fits on the strengths scale. It shouldn’t just be about knowing who is a 10 at restraint. You also want to know who’s a 9, who’s an 8, etc.
Minimize the gaps. The practice of veterinary medicine is rarely linear. That is, we never have just one task at any given time. So stop trying to put your 10’s on everything. Instead, use your knowledge of your team to minimize the gaps. If you’ve got a challenging cat and a dog that needs radiographs, maybe your 10 restrainer goes to the cat and the dog will do just fine with a couple level-7 restrainers.
Close the gaps. What can your 10 dental tech teach your 9’s and 8’s to elevate their game? What can’t the 9’s and 8’s teach your 7’s? What can YOU provide (via continuing education or matched mentorship or some other creative means) to various team members or the whole team to elevate their skills.
Go back to #1 and do it all again!
You may have read this far and found yourself thinking, “Duh?!?” It’s obvious, right? You do the best you can to maximize the strengths of your team.
Many things seem obvious when we hear them. But how often do we actually practice the obvious in the day-to-day craziness of veterinary leadership? For a long time I sure didn’t.
Be aware of what you’re routinely doing, or not doing, on a daily basis. Your actions and behavior cultivate cultural norms.
Are you letting your “best” doctor take all the “hard” cases? How is that impacting the rest of the doctor team? Is that really the most efficient use of the collective skills, knowledge, and talent? Is your “top tech” trying to be everywhere, all the time, looking over the shoulders of the other techs or just stepping in and doing it? Is this really benefiting the team? Or them?
Absolute advantage is like any other absolute. There’s only one way it’s ever “right” and countless ways it ends up being wrong.