How One Doctor Is Showing Us How to Tear Up the Organizational Playbook

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Feb 16, 2016

Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas told the Post. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big.

Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day care site for staffers’ kids.

Was this a mad scientist at work? Someone that was rethinking a process? Someone who tore up the playbook?

Yes, it was a little of all of those.

He was Dr. Bill Thomas, a Harvard trained physician who took over a nursing home and decided to “make some changes.”  His thought process was that elderly life is not supposed to work like this.  It is not supposed to be a “depressing, a repository for old people whose minds and bodies seemed dull and dispirited.”

What he found after this experiment was that caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

Tearing up the organizational playbook

What does this have to do with HR, you might wonder?

Here’s my take: Dr. Thomas took an industry that had probably been doing things the same way since it was founded. He cared nothing about the concept of “this is the way we have always done it.”

Most of all, he wanted to just try something new. He knew the baseline of nursing homes —  death, pills, holding pattern for death. There was not a whole lot to lose, and it was all upside

Our organizations have work rules that were created during the Industrial Age, for the most part, from the 40-hour work week to the work environment and leadership styles. Yet we plod ahead in the hopes that it will all turn around in some way.

You look at engagement scores, and for the most part, they stay the same. We look at turnover and it generally stays the same, yet we continue doing what we have been doing since work began. The thing that caught my eye about this article was the mindset of Dr. Thomas and his message that “growing older is a good thing.”  I can see it now: “Working at my company is a good thing, and here’s why”

The status quo is being questioned

We hear so much talk about the customer experience and we try do everything that we possibly can do to engage and keep that customer. We spend sleepless nights thinking of ways to outsmart our competitors and keep our customers. We pull out all the stops. This doctor looked for ways to engage his patients and used the same kind of intensity.

I’m sure he had thoughts on how to change this process and carried them bottled up inside until the opportunity presented itself.

When we read about open workspaces, unlimited vacations, working from home, live concerts, end of the week barbeques, school loan repayment programs, and more, know that all of these “new” initiatives came about because someone thought about a different way of doing things.

We will all have to explore new ways to move forward. If our organizations are to win, we have to figure out ways to invigorate the work environment. This doctor said something like, “the hell with the status quo, I am going to experiment.” That being said, his take was that everything was going to need to be rethought.

And by the way, he named this approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 states in the U.S.

So hopefully, your key initiatives will start a groundswell — and then you can really be known as an out of the box thinker.