Break a Little Glass.

Break a Little Glass.

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired Magazine, gave one of the best definitions of the word progress that I’ve ever heard. In an interview, he said, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year.”

He went on to explain that the problems of today were caused by yesterday’s technological successes. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see that that the technological solutions to today’s problems will create the problems of tomorrow. That should provide much solace to orthodontists who fear teledentistry and direct-to-consumer aligners. Learn to embrace the shift, ride the wave, identify and provide solutions to tomorrow’s problems.

Kelly’s definition resonated deeply with me. It’s a perfectly succinct explanation of my own success. I’ve somehow stubbornly managed to fix a little bit more than I’ve broken each year. The problem with most orthodontists is that they are scared to death to break anything.

When I opened three new locations in the same year, two of them built from the ground up and hired more associates than anyone in the practice knew what to do with, I broke a few things. When I bolted pediatric dentistry onto the business, I broke a few things. When I sat in my office late at night, determined to figure out and leverage InfusionSoft and marketing automation, I broke a few things. When I expanded hours, changed how we answered phones, got rid of the front desk, fired most insurance companies, went to war with one aggressive business partner, dropped the bomb of guaranteed never-miss-school-or-work hours and lifetime satisfaction guarantees, I broke a few things. When I marketed aggressively in the mail and on the radio, I broke a few things. When my attorneys had to push two of my associates out of the practice and I had to pay through the nose to get it done, I broke a few things. The list goes on. I won’t lull you into depression.

Here’s the rub: When’s the last time you broke something?

When Brian Niccol, CEO of Taco Bell, was asked how he managed to put a company selling corn, beans and ground beef on Fast Company’s list of Most-Innovative Organizations list last year, he said, “If you want to make progress you can’t be afraid to break a little glass every now and then.”

He quickly introduces new menu items in the chain of restaurants and if they don’t survive, he kills them quickly. Some menu items last only a few weeks. It drives his managers crazy, but the benefit is quickly discovering what his customers want.

How long does it take you to kill something in the practice? An underperforming employee, system, marketing campaign or piece of technology. How many of you still do annual performance reviews instead of monthly breakfast meetings and quarterly off-site workshops with your employees? Why does it take years or even decades for us to kill something we know isn’t working? Why are we so afraid to break a little glass.

Training is one answer. Behaving like the CEO of Taco Bell or Domino’s Pizza (another fine CEO you should be studying) would earn you a fast-pass to expulsion from dental or medical school.

Perfectionism is another. We’ve all convinced ourselves that everything from today forward is just going to work. We’re massively disappointed when things don’t work out like we envisioned in our minds. Most orthodontists I meet switch back and forth between “Everything is great and we’re taking over the world in my market,” and “Everything is doomed and we’re in full-on freak out mode in my market.” It’s incredibly rare that I find an orthodontist who makes steady, impressive gains in his or her own little world where they manage to fix more stuff than they break each year.

If you haven’t made a mental list by now of three or five things you want to go break, why are you waiting? What does your hesitation tell you about the situation? What does it tell you about you?

The most successful orthodontic practice owners in the future will find ways to get comfortable being very uncomfortable as things around them change rapidly. The sound of broken glass will make them smile, not shudder. Most of them will not be orthodontists. Re-read this last paragraph a few times and let it sink in. I’ll bet my bronze baby booties on this prediction: Twenty years from now, fewer than 5% of the glass-breakers in our profession will be orthodontists. I truly hope you are one of them. Everyone else will be pushing a mop for those who are breaking the glass.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.