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June 30, 2020

Probabilistic Permission

Regroup, restart, reinvigorate, recalibrate, rethink, reinvent.

Sounds like some weird game of Scrabble.

These ‘re’ things are what we are all up to, but I want to come back to the one we discussed earlier this week – rethinking, particularly when life now requires us to question something that we’ve long held to be true.

There are several reasons why this is hard for us.

Ego is one.  Admitting that we need to rethink that means we might have been wrong.  You might have been wrong, but me? Noooo.

Success is another.  The more our past thinking worked well, the harder it is to change it now.  This is why generals keep fighting the last war.  Today’s generals were the successful colonels and majors in the last war, and they did not get promoted because they died.  They won.

Another is the sheer magnitude of the work that comes with a change in thinking.  Everything was built on the old idea.  Alter that and we have a heavy lift to redo everything that is now obsolete.  Let’s keep believing the world is flat and just go get lunch.

There are other social and psychological forces for the inertia of beliefs – peer pressure, culture, reputation, the fact that we got everyone T-shirts emblazoned with the old mantra.

But there is one unique thing that we should get on the table, one we don’t think about but an idea that might make changing our mind easier.

Most of us, most of the time, tend to hold our truths in black or white fashion.  Something is true or it is not.  Our brains operate in binary mode – on or off.

Consequently, if we are asked to rethink something we held to be true – say a patient’s loyalty to their personal physician or how we think about different types of patient visits – and our only option is a complete rejection of what we believe, we are going to work really hard to defend the status quo.  All the reasons above kick in together.

Viva la resistance!

How do we overcome this?

One way is to work instead to think – and communicate with one another – more probabilistically.  Instead of ‘yes/no’ we frame our position in terms of ranges, levels of confidence, or percent of a chance.

If I ask you if your patient volumes in October will be back to last year’s level and your only options are ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ once you take a position, it is harder to change.

But if I ask you, ‘What is the likelihood that patient volumes will get back to our baseline this fall?’ and you say ‘75% – plus or minus 5%,’  then it is a lot easier – cognitively, psychologically – to revise your estimate up or down later as new data arrives to inform the question.

We are guessing at a lot of things right now. If we admit that, and use language accordingly with ourselves and our colleagues, we will be able to rethink, learn and grow much faster.

Tim Coan
Tim Coan

CEO and founder

Tim Coan, ALN’s CEO, writes an insightful and witty blog weekly about a variety of topics relevant to independent physician practices.