Monday 17 October 2011


Could a good surgeon use a coach? Dr. Atul Gawande thought he might. He'd reached a performance plateau and so went out looking for help from one of his former teachers, a retired surgeon. Result?
That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years. It had been strange and more than a little awkward having to explain to the surgical team why Osteen was spending the morning with us. “He’s here to coach me,” I’d said. Yet the stranger thing, it occurred to me, was that no senior colleague had come to observe me in the eight years since I’d established my surgical practice. Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one’s sights. I’d had no outside ears and eyes. Osteen has continued to coach me in the months since that experiment. I take his observations, work on them for a few weeks, and then get together with him again. The mechanics of the interaction are still evolving. Surgical performance begins well before the operating room, with the choice made in the clinic of whether to operate in the first place. Osteen and I have spent time examining the way I plan before surgery. I’ve also begun taking time to do something I’d rarely done before—watch other colleagues operate in order to gather ideas about what I could do.
In a Hansonean turn, Gawande then considers why coaching isn't used more often:
Osteen watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.

This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?

I have spoken to other surgeons about the idea. “Oh, I can think of a few people who could use some coaching” has been a common reaction. Not many say, “Man, could I use a coach!” Once, I wouldn’t have, either.
“Most surgery is done in your head,” Osteen [the coach] likes to say. Your performance is not determined by where you stand or where your elbow goes. It’s determined by where you decide to stand, where you decide to put your elbow. I knew that he could drive me to make smarter decisions, but that afternoon I recognized the price: exposure.

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

“Who’s that?” a patient asked me as she awaited anesthesia and noticed Osteen standing off to the side of the operating room, notebook in hand.

I was flummoxed for a moment. He wasn’t a student or a visiting professor. Calling him “an observer” didn’t sound quite right, either.

“He’s a colleague,” I said. “I asked him along to observe and see if he saw things I could improve.”

The patient gave me a look that was somewhere between puzzlement and alarm.

“He’s like a coach,” I finally said.

She did not seem reassured.
Every now and again, universities think it would be a good idea to send all of their profs off to take coursework in teaching. A former classmate of mine had to complete such a degree when he took a job teaching economics at Monash University several years ago; Canterbury talks about similar requirements. I would be very surprised if there were any positive return on the time investment.

But few of us seek out colleagues for constructive criticism. Exposure's not comfortable. Perhaps universities keen on improving teaching quality would do better in identifying standout teachers to assist as coaches rather than mandating completion of tertiary teaching degrees.

HT: @Isegoria

1 comment:

  1. I have thought about having colleagues present in my lectures but I worry about a Hawthorne effect, where I would change my teaching to impress them. Because of the earthquakes this year I had my lectures recorded in video, and that has been very telling!