My father raised me to have a love for baseball. He made sure I knew each of the Los Angeles Dodgers by name and jersey number, and by the age of seven, he made sure I could play the game. When I was first learning we never bothered with the tee; he would pitch to me and coach me after every swing. He pitched and I swung until I was a master—or until we were hungry. I remember I always had trouble with the curve ball. I could play first base, shortstop, I could bunt, even hit a home run or two, but getting a hit off a curve ball never made the list.
Recently I attended the American Healthcare Quality Association Quality Summit in Baltimore, Maryland, situated directly next door to the home of the Baltimore Orioles, Camden Yards. It's a beautiful stadium that can be seen from the conference hall with many conference attendees catching an Orioles game at the end of their day. Over the years I've attended a number of these conferences and have seen the stadium from the inside, but this year was different. As usual, the conference provided hours upon hours of sitting and information overload, but this year instead of being encouraged to do more, achieve more, and be more—we were encouraged to get comfortable working in difficult circumstances. Let there be no mistake, achieving more was still the goal – that had not changed. What was different was the idea that we can't get into the 'green' unless we can first be comfortable in the 'red'. For a moment it felt as though my father was still standing at the pitcher's mound and I was at bat attempting to hit that curve ball. As speakers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) greeted the audience and set the stage for years to come, they asked us to pause and find comfort in discomfort - to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Not one but three CMS senior executives shared their personal stories of failure and how the transparency of their momentary lack of success encouraged them to learn more – faster.
As I sat there and listened I realized how uncomfortable I was just sitting there! How would I bring this back to my team? For years we've used the familiar 'green, yellow, red' color coding in our performance dashboards to provide quick and intuitive displays of progress (or lack thereof). Suffice it to say, the red was not a place we wanted to be. We did everything to avoid the red. Green was clearly the most desirable form of progress and yellow, while not red, was still a bit scary and safe at the same time. And then it hit me. The closer to red we were, the more creative we became. It wasn't as if our team couldn't manage failure – sure we could, we have. Instead, we were being asked to recognize that it is in time of struggle where we find our true potential. It is where we find sustainability. It is where we should be asking ourselves, "What is good about this seemingly bad situation?"
I left happy to take this refreshing perspective back to my team and wondered if they would be as surprised to hear it from me as I was to hear it from CMS. I know one thing for certain, I may still have trouble with the curve in terms of baseball pitches, but I think this curve ball might just be a home run.