Be a Connecting Node


How would you describe American political culture today?

What about the culture at your workplace?

In your family?

Are dissenting voices welcomed?  How do those in authority wield their power?  Do the led have a say in decisions and policies that affect them?  Are their needs and interests taken into account by those who lead?

What role do you play in each of these systems?  How do you contribute to the function, dysfunction, morale, and relationships in these interconnected, overlapping, inextricable and sometimes tenuous systems?

How much of these cultures do you own, do you take personal responsibility for?

I have written before about the interaction between a system and its individuals.  In each of the systems I name above—our nation, your workplace, your family—you are a single individual, a node [a point at which lines or pathways intersect or branch; a central or connecting point].  You are connected, directly and indirectly, to every other node in all of your systems.  Thus, you connect each of your overlapping systems to every other one.  So do I.  This is how we are all connected, every single one of us, and our planet.

Thus, what you do affects me, even if I have never met you, even if we live on different continents, in separate generations, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and vice versa, for all of us.

Octavia Butler said it best:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
Is Change.

So how do you change what you touch?

Do you make it better than it was?  Does the change you make make you better in return?

If the only lasting truth is change, then what do we want tomorrow to look like?  What about next year?  What kind of world do we want our grandchildren and their grandchildren to inherit?

Are you a node that connects, using your power and love to thicken the ties between your adjacent nodes and systems, making them stronger and more resilient?  Who is healthier, stronger, and happier for you having touched them?  How have they then extended that health, strength and joy to others?  How have you resisted destructive forces and stood in the way of systems disintegration?  Whom have you protected?  What did it cost you, and what did you gain?  What have you earned?  How will you persist?  What and who hold you up?  On which nodes do you lean, from which do you draw strength, and how then do you pass that strength on?  How do you influence and co-create the culture around you this way?

Or are you a destructive, severing node?  How do you go around blowing up connections, weakening relationship infrastructures?  Maybe you don’t see it this way. Perhaps you see your work as culling, pruning, removing extraneous nodal debris, clearing the path for a more righteous supersystem to rise.  What does this cost you?  Is the benefit worth the price?  Who are your coconspirators in this effort?  How do they change you for your connections to them?  How do you expect your connections to other destructive nodes to evolve?  What is your impact on your systems cultures, being this way?

I suspect we all possess both poles of nodal potential.  Probably most of us go about our days in relative mindlessness, speaking and acting as our surroundings and culture dictate, by convention and custom.  We suppress the inner dissonance that arises when our personal instincts run counter to prevailing winds of rhetoric.  We fear losing connections if our personal nodal identity reflects a different light or sounds a different note from the collective thrum.  The status quo feels easier to uphold.

I posit to you today that our systems are disintegrating fast, eroded by myriad destructive nodes, spreading like slime mold on a global petri dish.  I argue that our collective political culture suffers much today from these destructive nodes, and connector nodes struggle to nurture ties and maintain relationships.  In such times, we may feel tempted to give in, to allow our inner rage monster to tantrum, to succumb to swelling, destructive, disconnecting culture.  Indeed, it is hard to resist.

And yet, we continue.  We march on.

Culture is created and maintained in each day to day interaction between all members of a system. Any individual may choose, at any time, to maintain the status quo or make a shift. It is the accumulation of multiple small shifts, simultaneously and in series, that moves a system to a new, improved state.  Each day we awaken, we have a choice—an infinite series of choices—to make a shift toward connecting and strengthening our intertwined systems.

Do not wait for someone else to go first.  Make the choice yourself, today, right now.  Be a connecting node.  Speak and act, post online, and show up in person, irrefutably, as a connector.  Make your touch productive and generative, inclusive, empowering, and communal.  See how this changes how others show up to you, and how that changes you for the better still.  Then watch the slime mold recede before your eyes as connector node energy amplifies and restores balance.

Slime molds recur.  Connecting nodes hold the line.  We need you.

Attune and Attend, Continued


Last week I started and ended my post incensed on behalf of my friend, who felt coldly and arrogantly dismissed by her new doctor.  While I considered that his behavior may be influenced by his circumstances and did not attack his character or make generalizations based on gender, age, etc., I did blame him individually for how my friend felt in his presence.

Another friend read the post and said the doctor was not to blame, rather it’s the system.  We exchanged thoughts and agreed that it was not all the doctor’s fault, and the whole healthcare system in our country is just a big mess in general.  I continue to have daily conversations around physician well-being and systems transformation in medicine, and every single encounter advances my understanding of and awe at the whole situation.  Here are my most current thoughts—bear with me, please.

3 Reciprocal Domains of Professional Fulfillment

Most of us working in the physician well-being space have adopted a model for professional fulfillment developed by our colleagues at Stanford.  If you care at all about your doctors’ professional health and how that impacts the care they deliver, I encourage you to read this article that describes their approach.  In it, they define efficiency of practice (eg team workflow, electronic health record use and misuse, systems bureaucracy), culture of wellness (institutional attitudes that advocate for self-care, peer support, and mutual compassion between team members and patients), and personal resilience (individual skills and behaviors that promote personal well-being) as the three mutually influencing factors that determine, for individuals as well as organizations, our overall professional health and well-being:

The many drivers of both burnout and high professional fulfillment fall into three major domains: efficiency of practice, a culture of wellness, and personal resilience… Each domain reciprocally influences the others; thus, a balanced approach is necessary to build a stable platform that will drive sustained improvements in physician well-being and the performance of our health care systems.

For the record, I fully concur with this approach, and with one of the authors whom I met at the international conference in Toronto, that the most important parts of the framework are the arrows reminding us always to look for how the domains intersect and influence one another.

We Are the System

In the article, the authors write, “Efficiency of practice and a culture of wellness are primarily organizational responsibilities, whereas maintaining personal resilience is primarily the obligation of the individual physician.”  This is where I differ somewhat.  I fully agree that an organization’s culture is set at the top.  Designated leaders lead by example, admit it or not, like it or not.  They (and we—all doctors bear this responsibility on any given care team) provide cues for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, positive and negative.

That said, a team or an organization’s culture is executed and manifested day to day, moment to moment, in every interaction, by each individual within the system.  This is the essence of complex systems—they are self-organizing at a global level (hence soon after joining a group we find ourselves adapting to fit in), and also emergent and evolutionary at the granular level (one person can turn a place around over time—have you seen it?).  So in my opinion, both leaders and individuals are responsible for creating and maintaining the Culture of Wellness in medicine.  We are the system.  If you’re interested in more of what I think about this, check out this podcast from September 2018 when I presented to the surgeons and anesthesiologists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In a Complex System, It’s All About Relationships

A person is a complex system.  In my practice (and in my own life) I try always to attend to the relationships between 5 reciprocal domains (labelled intentionally after the Stanford model) of health: Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management, and Relationships.  How do they relate?  When I don’t get enough sleep I tend to overeat; when I eat too much I feel sluggish and unmotivated to exercise.  When I exercise less I am more susceptible to stress, which puts my relationships at risk, which then disrupts my sleep, and the downward spiral persists.

A patient care team, a medical practice, a hospital—these are all complex systems.  Besides the three domains in the Stanford model, what other factors contribute to the self-organizing nature of such systems?  Perhaps individual autonomy, collective loyalty, shared mission, attention to training, and communication?  What inter-relational factors dictate an individual’s or a subgroup’s behavior, and how does that influence the whole organization?

I am reminded of starlings in a murmuration, or sardines in a school.  Seen from afar, the mass of animals appears to move as one agile and sentient organism.  In reality, each animal’s movement is at once independent of and intimately tied to those in its immediate vicinity.  Each animal’s awareness of and response to its neighbors are acute and instantaneous, respectively, and thus the collective is able to evade predators and give humans insight into what true multi-mutual cooperation looks like.  They are attuned.  This is possible because, according to science:

The change in the behavioral state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is. Scale-free correlations provide each animal with an effective perception range much larger than the direct interindividual interaction range, thus enhancing global response to perturbations.

Would your organization, seen from afar, appear as organized and fluid as a flock of murmuring starlings?  What would it require in order to do so?

* * * *

So what does this mean for my friend and how she (and we all) should think about doctors and our healthcare system in general?  How does this actually relate to solutions to the problems I presented last week?  Clearly, as I beat the long dead horse again and again, it’s about relationships, of course.  But we have to think more deeply than just about our behaviors and actions—we’ gotta buckle up and dive into their origins—spelunk our default orientations toward self and others, our automatic settings, and how they manifest in our relationships and create, intentionally and not, our collective systems.

Once again, I have hit 1000 words on this post and it’s late.  I’m getting there, I promise—not that I have the solution!  I’m simply learning and synthesizing more every week about how we can more consciously and mindfully approach the problem.  It has everything to do with the books I started reading recently about complexity, leadership, and mindset, and how they help me see my conversations and relationships in a new, exciting light.

More next week, friends!

Less Phone, More BOOKS!

books 11-3-2018

NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Hi, I’m Cathy, and I’m addicted to my phone.

Last month I finally decided to do something about it, mostly so I could be more present to the kids.  It’s been a fascinating journey so far, and I’m proud to say I’ve already made progress.  First I banned Facebook after 6pm.  That went well until I traveled.  Then I took the Facebook app off of my phone.  The withdrawl continues to spike at times.  I also notice that I use other things to substitute—New York Times, email, Washington Post, email, WordPress Reader, email.  I notice an anxiety, a frustration, a kind of crazed, darting hankering– I crave that dopamine hit.

The awareness of it all, however, and the commitment to get disentangled from my screen, has cleared space for a recently dormant impulse to surface afresh:


* * *

At the conference last month I was turned on to the idea of complexity (or chaos) theory and how it relates to fixing physician burnout and turning our whole medical system around.  It was positively mind-blowing (for me—most others did not seem quite as lit).  The speaker was Anthony Suchman, my newest hero.  Some highlight ideas:

  • Every system is perfectly designed to get exactly the results it gets. Our current healthcare system evolved to this point precisely from serial and cumulative decisions made over years, even though the current state was never the intent.
  • We think of organizations as machines, with predictable, linear consequences of adjustments in one part or another. This is rarely how organizations (of people) actually work.  Rather, we can think of organizations as conversations, and let go our expectations of particular outcomes, the illusion of total control.  We can let things unfold and go where the outcomes lead us, all while holding to core values and goals.
  • Patterns are (re)created in each moment, and also self-organizing. So at the same time that a pattern (eg culture) seems inevitable and self-propagating, sometimes small, almost imperceptible perturbations can create new and dramatic cascades that lead to transformation (the butterfly effect).
  • Emergent Design thus embraces the approach of “finding answers we are willing to not know,” trusting that we will get where we need to go simply because we are paying attention (or that’s how I interpret it today).

This theory that everything within a system both results from and also contributes to the whole system (a fractal) validates an idea I have been advocating to my patients for years, and that I continue to personally relearn ad nauseam: It’s all connected.  The most concrete examples are Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management, and Relationships—I used to call them the 5 Realms of Health; now I call them the 5 Reciprocal Domains.  Each one is inextricably connected to every other one, and they all move in concert, with subtle or dramatic dynamics.

books 11-2-18

I browsed around my local bookstore a couple weeks ago and came across a colorful title on the shelf: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown.  So of course I snatched it up.  The blurb says:

Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live.  Change is constant.  The world is in a continual state of flux.  It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns.  Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen.  This is a resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.

Holy cow, YAAAAS!!  I could not wait to read it!  So I bought it, along with Make Trouble by Cecile Richards, What If This Were Enough? By Heather Havrilesky, and The Dharma of “The Princess Bride” by Ethan Nichtern.  I had also ordered Leading Change in Healthcare, coauthored by Dr. Suchman and two others.  That copy arrived last week.

Suchman 1

I feel this as all part of a slow turn, getting off my phone and diving into books again.  I’m so excited.  I have done this before—buy a bunch of books and never read them.  They occupy whole shelves in my bedroom.  But I honestly feel a transformation coming on.  Yesterday I spent a couple hours reading, researching, and writing the blog post, then I turned off the computer and opened Brown’s book.  I read through the long introduction and resonated with sentences like, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”  This is a quote from Complex Adaptive Leadership: Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty by Nick Obolensky (which I have also now ordered).  I also love (ha!), “Perhaps humans’ core function is love.  Love leads us to observe in a much deeper way than any other emotion.”  Also:

all that you touch

you change

all that you change

changes you

the only lasting truth

is change

god is change

That is a quote from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

Then before bed I opened Suchman et al’s book and found these words, also in the introduction:

Complexity theory here is enriched by the focus on relationships [Hallelujah!], rather than the more traditional reference to science.  “Relationship-Centered Care” is a way of thinking that brings love and all that is personal into a world, the world of healthcare, that is mostly interested in more control and more data-based, evidence-based practices.

The point is made throughout that administrators cannot bring real change into their healthcare institutions without going through change themselves.

(The book describes) the relationship-centered social dynamics that are at the heart of Lean and a major source of this method’s success.  Unfortunately, these social dynamics are overshadowed or even displaced by the analytic technique in some Lean implementations, compromising results.

Suchman 2

So I’m learning about new ways to think on change.   It’s changing how I approach trying to change my patterns, how I see my relationship to them, how I see all relationships.  Wow.

All of this to say, I feel a deeply personal, yet global and cosmic impulse for growth, for transformation—a shift into more mindful and intentional use of my time and energy, and how I manifest it outward.  Less distraction, more focus.  Less incidental information consumption, more integrated learning and coordinated application.  Less phone, more BOOKS.

What will be the outcome?  I have no idea, that’s what makes it so exciting and wonderful!  Onward!