Questions to ask yourself

on 17th January 2019

Alun Rees says honesty is the best policy – asking yourself some upfront questions about your practice can result in positivity for your business.

A client said to me recently, ‘What is it with you coaches? It’s always questions.’ I replied that I was taught to ask questions as part of history taking as a dental student and those lessons have influenced everything in my life. Curiosity is one of my core values; I know I’m in the right job.

Here are the three hard ‘starter’ questions that I ask my clients and teach them to ask themselves on a regular basis – usually at least once a year:

1. What do you want? From your life and your business? If you have no idea then you surely will not get it. Without a long term big vision then life will be a series of stumbling, stepping stones across a river so wide that the other side is always out of sight.

2. Why do you want it? To answer this takes a chunk of honesty, a degree of self-awareness and the ability to take the mirror and look yourself straight in the eye.

3. What’s the plan? Without a plan, your life resembles a yachtsman leaving Southampton and hoping to reach New York with only a compass for assistance. You may well be heading west, but without knowing the winds, tides, currents and stars you can only ever sail with hope and will be forever at the mercy of the elements.

Strategy and tactics

I was discussing the difference between strategy and tactics with a group of clients recently and we wondered if their early clinical years in dental practice had reduced their ability to understand the differences.

Strategy is all about the long term, deciding on goals, planning the big steps that are going to be made, what resources will be needed, who will do what and above all how performance will be monitored. It takes good generals who are able to see the bigger picture.

Tactics on the other hand, deals with the short term, the actual means for carrying out the decided strategy. It involves detailed movements and manoeuvres to perform a particular short-term aim.

Dentistry is full of tactics and tacticians, people who react and deal with the short term. The tradition of dental treatment is to see an immediate problem and fix it, whether it is disease, infection or trauma. The bigger picture of the whole mouth or even whole person is frequently ignored.

Even in these apparently more sophisticated days, there is a tendency to embrace the short term, so whiter smiles and straighter front teeth have become the long hanging fruit of the early 21st century. That’s no criticism of dealing with patients’ wants, but there is a risk of missing out on dealing with the whole patient.

Dealing with the crisis

Frequently when I am called in as a ‘trouble-shooter’ the client has no answer other than, ‘I don’t know what I want, but I know that I have to get away from here.’  The first steps are made to get rid of the immediate pain and to deal with the crisis. It’s not unlike draining an abscess to provide short-term relief, but there needs to be definitive endodontic treatment and an adequate restoration for a long-term solution.

We all know that practices exist where patients are a succession of one-offs with little or no long-term planning. They are frequently chaotic, sometimes little more than private dental A&Es, with high staff turnover, poor morale and no underlying sense of purpose or direction. I label
these ‘reactive survivors’ as opposed to ‘proactive thrivers’.

One thing that marks these practices out is that they always have a list of excuses why, ‘It wouldn’t work here’. They blame everything from the patients, the location, the previous owners (a favourite), the staff, the associates, the membership scheme, etc. The one thing that marks them out is that they have never asked themselves the three big questions, never had a strategic plan, never looked further than the next quarter of the year, and often never further than the end of the month.

Ask yourself this…

We’ve looked at the three starters, now here are the bonus questions to ask. During your period of exploration and evaluation you should also consider the following:

What has worked? Which bits of your business (and personal) life have been successful, have made you happy and do you want to do more of? Why have they worked?

What hasn’t worked? Apply the same lens to the things that are less successful or have failed. What went wrong? Do you need to abandon them or modify what you’re doing?

What are you going to change? Every business, every life must evolve to reflect alterations in the outside environment. Be aware of changes coming down the track that will have an effect on you and plan for them accordingly. No changes mean that you are probably going to have the same conversation with yourself in 12 months’ time.

What have you learnt? Be thoroughly honest, if you haven’t learnt anything you are doomed to a life like Sisyphus, forever pushing the same boulder up the same hill only to watch it roll back down again.

What are the challenges facing you at the moment? Be honest, be comprehensive.

Which is the biggest? Which would make the most difference to solve? How would it make a difference?

What’s the plan? Or are you going to have the same conversation with yourself in 12 months’ time?

What actions will take you forward? What is the first step, the second, the third and so on? When will you take them?

How will you know the changes have worked? What will you measure?

How will you use your time better? Dentistry is evolving at a remarkable rate, be ever aware of what you could and should be delegating. Constantly ask, ‘Am I the only person who can do this?’ When the answer is no, find or employ someone who can so that you can concentrate on your best work.

Do you need help? A dental degree  does not train you to run a business. I watch dentist after dentist make the same mistakes as they struggle to somehow reinvent the wheel in the belief that their practice is unique. It is in many ways, of course, but not in the business fundamentals.


Alun K Rees BDS

Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career he now works as a coach, consultant, troubleshooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others’ successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.


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