Letting ideas incubate

Oct. 28, 2015
These days, the office manager, Sarah, is reflecting a great deal on the transformation that has happened in her office over the past 10 months.

BY Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

These days, the office manager, Sarah, is reflecting a great deal on the transformation that has happened in her office over the past 10 months. When she looks back on the quagmire of disease that was pervasive within the office, she knows the office was sinking rapidly into a toxic bog. Not only was it an unhealthy culture, but the practice was suffering as well. It was only a matter of time before it imploded.

Today, it is different. The team is now focusing on why they are working where they do, and they are recognizing the many talents of their diverse and multigenerational staff. Their new tag line, "Drake Dental - Empowerment from the Inside Out" was drafted by everyone, and it speaks to each team member in unique ways.

Sarah is grateful on many fronts. She has had the full support of the doctor to drive new initiatives, enabling her to develop a team that networks for creative ideas. She is aware that collaboration is key to success and that old behavioral patterns need to be disrupted in order to establish newer, healthier patterns. Most of all, she is grateful to have had the "discovery cycle," a powerful tool for innovation and new thinking. Learning to ask questions, make observations, network, and experiment has been key to the change in the office. Along with these processes, Sarah actively and regularly practices another element of the discovery cycle: incubation.1

Guidelines for incubation

1. Gather information and data through the "discovery cycle." Learning to question, observe, network, and experiment will aid in broadening your perspective.
2. Recognize that time constraints can help to trigger new solutions and ideas. Don't get stressed about it.
3. Think about the challenge and ask, "What if?" New possibilities occur when we are open to new ideas.
4. Relax: Spend time in nature, meditation, or activities that are uplifting and engaging for you.
5. Practice incubation for creative problem-solving on a regular basis.

There is no question that, at times, she felt stuck and frustrated over the past 10 months. Sometimes, progress was at a standstill, and the flow of ideas was stagnant, but she had to recognize that new associations, which lead to insights, often need to simply sit and incubate. This ebb and flow is part of the creative process. Often, she would simply relax, getting her mind off of the problems, and then she would return to the challenges with a fresh mind. There was no order to the process; in fact, there were times when she would be mulling over the issues while out for her morning run or while gardening. Untold hours were given to processing the information gathered from the brainstorming exercises with the stakeholders.

Early on, Sarah knew that as the new office manager, she needed to be able to inspire and elicit the trust of her team. In addition, she needed to believe wholeheartedly that the team could bridge the generational divide that had occurred over the years, and she needed them to believe it, as well. For close to two weeks, she allowed ideas about shifting the team's perspective to incubate. Nothing was grabbing her attention, and therefore, she knew that it would not speak to the team. After allowing the ideas to incubate for a while, a eureka moment hit her suddenly when a colleague told her a story about the professional basketball team, the Miami Heat. Immediately upon hearing the story, Sarah knew it would be the model the office could follow.

In 2006, the Miami Heat wasn't supposed to get into the finals of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Even though the team had a star player, Shaquille O'Neal, it was overshadowed by many more powerful teams. But under the insightful leadership of Coach Pat Riley, they made it to the championship.2 The Heat played the Dallas Mavericks for the NBA title and was ahead, three games to two. If they won the sixth game, they would win the series on the Dallas court. If they lost the sixth game, they would be playing the final game on that same court, not their home court.

Riley knew that, statistically, the team with home-court advantage wins three out of every four series in the playoffs. If they lost the sixth game, winning the seventh game in an enemy stadium would be almost impossible. But Riley believed in his team and knew they could beat the Mavericks as long as the players believed they could win the championship in the sixth game. So . . . how did he motivate his players to win the sixth game? He simply told the team the whole story of their upcoming victory in a single line: He told everyone to pack for just one night. Not two. Just one small overnight bag. This sent a message to the team that Riley intended for them to win and return home as NBA World Champions. The result? The Miami Heat won the championship!

This story illustrated for Sarah the need to show the team that she and the doctor held a strong belief in the team. After a particularly calming afternoon by the water, an insight came to Sarah about how they might send this message to everyone on staff, regardless of each person's age. In 11 months, Tony Robbins was to deliver his program, "Unleash the Power Within," in their city, and Sarah knew this would be an opportunity. Tony's renowned fire walk would send a strong message to the team about facing fears and meeting goals. And the office's advance investment in tickets for everyone would show them that the doctor and Sarah believed in them as a team.

Immediately, there was a shift in the energy of the office-a shift from hopelessness to possibility. If the new owner and Sarah believed in a better tomorrow, then the team could believe in it, as well. Realistically, however, Sarah knew it was going to take a year to realign the attitudes and behaviors to sustain this new positive outlook. Other insights and breakthroughs would be needed.

Sarah sees now that incubation was key to dismantling the barriers over the past 10 months. There were many insightful moments that led to the following new initiatives: the development of a new mission statement that would speak to all members of the team; the exploration of each team member's unique talents; the shift in focus from the differences of the multiple generations to similarities; the creation of guidelines for mentoring; the acts of coaching versus telling; the annual outings that appeal to everyone; the creation of criteria for zero tolerance to bullying; the establishment of casual one-on-one lunches with the doctor; and finally, the development of a mindset to be a self-investigator. When each breakthrough occurred, it was as if a gate had opened, releasing a herd of ideas. These ideas were often arrived at collaboratively after exploration and incubation. The result is that working together enlisted the cooperation and buy-in of everyone.

Today, everything in the office has improved: relationships, efficiency, engagement, and profit margins. However, Sarah knows the office is a living entity, and the pulse of the team will need to be taken regularly. Comfort and complacency are the enemies to sustaining a healthy team. An ever-watchful eye will be required, as well as the usage of the discovery cycle. It clearly has been a lifesaver for the team, and it will be the buoy that keeps it afloat.

Over the past months, everyone struggled in shifting attitudes, and while there were certainly growing pains in developing an inclusive culture, the generational gap is no longer an issue. Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment is rich and rewarding, and the creation of a healthy work environment is a victory. Tony Robbins' fire walk will now reinforce the power within a united team, and everyone recognizes that they are the creators of tomorrow. RDH


1. Dyer J, Gregersen H, Christensen CM. The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.
2. CBC Radio. "Under the Influence." Accessed May 23, 2015.

Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected].