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How to foster a culture of progress and innovation in any veterinary practice

September 28, 2021

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How to foster a culture of progress and innovation in any veterinary practice

I’m sure many of you reading this will see yourself as an innovator and if you have managed to build and develop your practices, you must have displayed this quality to succeed, however there is a clear distinction between a practice being led by an innovator and a practice developing a culture of innovation.

Translating individual innovation to group innovation is no mean feat, but the results can be truly outstanding once achieved. Developing a culture of innovation and progress doesn’t just happen, it is built and nurtured over time.

There isn’t a silver bullet but a series of four building blocks that, when focused on, can lead to real success and continuous improvement in any practice:

  • Leadership
  • Culture
  • People, and
  • Processes


Leadership creates vision, vision develops the culture, culture attracts people and people build the framework to succeed, progress and innovate. A long but simple cycle, with each element feeding and allowing the next.

These are all great buzz words we hear all the time but what do they mean?

 Leadership (Vision and Strategy)

 A progressive practice innovates and grows with emotionally intelligent leaders; leaders who understand what they want to achieve and who build a culture with a team whose energies complement their own.

The primary role of a leader in this scenario is to provide a cohesive and productive environment, in support of a shared vision, which acts for the benefit of the pets, the clients and the practice.

Easy huh?!

Actually, the first step is quite straightforward.  Focus on articulating what you want to achieve, why you are doing what you are doing and what success to you looks like. By this I don’t mean a general ‘help humanity’ or ‘do good’ vibe, I mean practically what do you want your practice to provide? Do you want to grow in the future? What do you want to be known for? How would you like your clients to describe you? What targets are you going to set? What is your success criteria?

Without this clear definition you have nothing to aim for; you can’t develop a cohesive strategy or a plan to get there.

The second step is more difficult. The successful implementation of your plan is the difference between surviving or thriving in practice. Again, I would stress good intention is not enough here; a tangible plan is required to offer the guidance required to keep you and your team on track.

We work with our clients on vision orbits and 90-day plans, to support this process. Whatever you use, I would highly recommend using a templated document with structure and guidance to ensure the outcome brings the clarity required to disseminate through the team and hold the author to account.


A small word with a big connotation, and one that is often left to chance rather than consciously worked upon.  Culture is the shared underlying principles and perceptions that describe and guide ‘the way we do things around here’. Without a conscious focus on developing and establishing these common ways of working and expected behaviours, even the most dedicated team will struggle to function effectively together in the long run.

Everyone brings their own background and approach to the table. Relying on individual ‘judgement-calls’ can lead to major conflicts in key areas of practice:

  • Clinical vs. Commercial value – applies particularly to the practice manager and the role of the practice – clinic first and business second, or vice versa.
  • Non-profit “charity status” – clients can’t /won’t /don’t have to pay – embedded in individual and traditional cultural thinking – “we do it for the animals”
  • Clients are a necessary evil – “they won’t let us do our job!” or fear of exposure of lack of competence in front of clients and colleagues leads to over/under diagnosis and excessive/poor treatments.

Without a clear articulation of your collective ‘why’ and codes of conduct, disharmony and disfunction can easily build over time. This lack of clarity can lead to a number of ‘symptoms and issues including:

  • Following of individual personalities and agendas – reflected in the lack of accountability and responsibility for the delivery of consistency of practice clinical protocols, advice, and objectives.
  • Blame culture and functional ‘stovepipes’ – the system produces conflict and problems and has no method of dealing with them – “It’s not my problem!” or “I didn’t know!” – fostered by a lack of role definition or feedback.
  • Team members need to adhere to routine and control – reflecting lack of confidence and self-esteem and therefore flexibility in working style.
  • Lack of case responsibility – Vets/Nurses: “It’s not my job”. Vets: “It’s not my case”
  • Lack of individual managerial responsibility – due to a lack of a “holistic” view of the practice and poor personal management (time, resources, money & energy).

These symptoms are much easier to prevent than to resolve and can be a major block to practice growth and progress. So don’t leave this to chance. Proactivity, accountability, and trust can only be fostered through deliberate action. Not passive optimism!


For most businesses the single biggest expense is their people. We know how hard you have to work every month to make that money, not getting the maximum return on your outlay is such a waste, so not devoting time and energy into your investment is plain fool hardy.

 Recruit the right team

Innovation involves harnessing the different energies of your team to the maximum benefit of the individuals and the business.

Some people are naturally innovative and intuitively drive concepts, projects, and activity forward, despite all odds. Other people wait for the right time to make a decision. Some people will always be focused on who is affected or involved by a decision and who they can connect with, whereas others will naturally think of the process or the system first and how that should operate. They all have their place in the innovation cycle.

The concept of natural energy and flow does not suggest that any of these approaches are right or wrong. It simply acknowledges that they exist, and therefore different people will naturally be more effective at different roles within a business. The ace in the surgery department might struggle if moved into a consulting only role, while a successful specialist clinician will often be the wrong person to lead a long, detailed delivery project.

 Harness their energy  

While we can all develop a broad range of skills and learnt behaviours, it is in those critical moments that we tend to respond in a particularly instinctive way. There are various profile tools available that will help you identify how you and your team will typically react and respond, both individually and as a unit in these situations.

We use Contribution Compass™ which, for the benefit of this article, I’ll use to highlight what I mean.

There are four natural energies that combine in varying degrees for every person, thereby providing a unique profile that highlights how that person is likely to respond in a critical moment.

  • Activating energy (North) accelerates and ignites change.
  • Inspiring energy (East) ignites the spark in others, rallying the team to support the shared vision while striving to excel.
  • Sustaining energy (South) brings others’ ideas to life through the implementation of those ideas and the nurturing of their growth.
  • Refining energy (West) brings a sharp eye for detail.


Why is this important to know?

For example, if the partners or directors are what we call ‘Activating’ profiles, being innovators and ground-breakers, in a critical moment they will create new ideas and solutions, sometimes creating new problems which need solutions. Adding more of the same energy in this situation would result in a multitude of new projects being started and not finished.

Bringing in grounded ‘Sustaining’ profiles would balance out this high-action dynamic and attune the business to more appropriate cycles and timing, ultimately enabling it to build a much stronger, long-term, sustainable enterprise.

An ‘Inspiring’ profile will inherently understand the needs of the team and external stakeholders and actively engage with them, which balances a ‘Refining’ profile that is analytical, and data driven.

Successful businesses are great at identifying, recruiting, and retaining the right talent. Talent that adds value to the clients and the practice, and importantly balances the team and contributes to the mix of energies already in place, in turn maximising returns through innovation and implementation.

When there is a balance of natural energy around a leadership team table and across the operational and front-line teams, the stronger team dynamics create greater personal flow, innovation, customer flow and profit flow as a result.

Therefore, when you are recruiting, don’t just think about the skillset and qualifications, think profile, think team balance, and think about what stage you are at in your plan; are you looking to grow or sustain? Do you need more activating or refining energies?

The decisions you make when you recruit your team will actively contribute to the success or failure of your plans; don’t leave things to chance! This area is a real passion for me. All too often, we as leaders think of job roles and requirements. This tendency to lose that human element can greatly affect you, your team’s harmony, and productivity. To find out your natural energy and contribution go to

Finally, we come to Structure and Processes.

This very phrase to many would seem to contrast the freedom associated with innovation. However, even if you did everything else I have suggested, without structure and processes in place, the best you can expect are good intentions, high aspirations and competing personalities and approaches. Not a productive combination!

Structure and process provide the framework which allows and rewards responsibility and reduces friction. Rigidity in this context is a good thing. Clear guidance on how to approach common tasks, roles and responsibilities, and rules to live by (how we interact with clients and each other), instils the confidence and freedom necessary to nurture real innovation.

Don’t be afraid to be prescriptive here. Far from quashing spirit, sharing expectations, and providing guidelines has the opposite effect.

When your team members are confident and clear about their role and the expectation, they are empowered to fulfil it. Furthermore, when they are reassured that there are safe forums and processes to handle challenges, receive feedback and find solutions in constructive ways, trust is built, and motivation follows.

Now that’s a lot to consider so let’s drill down. Do you want to foster innovation and progress in your veterinary practice?

  1. Know who you are and what you want to be
  2. Document the vision and set success criteria
  3. Bring the right people in to support your vision
  4. Actively steer the practice culture
  5. Develop a framework and structure to support your team and goals

And remember. You might be the leader, but that doesn’t mean you have all the answers all the time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; the results could be a game changer!

By Alan Robinson BVSc MRCVS DMS