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Competition Versus Collaboration: Getting ahead in SPD without Losing Sight of the Ultimate Goal

With the new year upon us, many of you may be crafting your resolutions for the next 12 months, or at least hoping to check off that next big thing in 2022.

Will it be a promotion? New microcredential? Nationally recognized award or distinction for your department?

There are countless worthy goals out there for driven sterile processing professionals who earnestly care about becoming the best weapon of mass microbial destruction they can be. Whatever your aim, and whenever you seek to accomplish it, you will likely run into situations where you are forced to work through the tedious choices caused by natural competitive spirit and the critical need to collaborate as a broader industry. After all, there is only one manager position in your hospital. If you get it, that means someone else does not, and vice versa. Similarly, many of you are pursuing industry certifications and microcredentials, and while there is no competition between who can get these things, there is often a race to see who can get them first.

How do we cultivate this healthy competition among ourselves and our teams, while still holding fast to the tremendous value gained by intentional collaboration? Is there really a conflict between the two at all? There are two themes that may help us work this out in the real world of pay checks, self-interest, and patient safety.

Better is better, no matter how you slice it
The most obvious piece of the competition versus collaboration puzzle is the idea of improvement. We can all agree that making our sterile processing industry better is a worthy goal for individuals, departments, regional and national organizations, and even vendor partners. While we may not all agree on the biggest problems that are facing our profession, or even the specific solutions which will work best to fix them, we can at least find mutual understanding around the idea that the status quo is not an acceptable option. Simply put, we all want a better sterile processing experience: better pay, better benefits, better resources, better technology, better training, better cultures, better working environments, and so forth.

Competition serves this goal, even—and perhaps especially—when there are disagreements present. For instance, if one manager believes a certain process is best for loaner management, while the manager across town believes their own process is uniquely designed to improve the process, we have the backdrop for real, competitive improvement. Now both managers not only want to work hard to improve their own loaner workflow, but there is also an external drive to show the other whose process works best (i.e., competition).

Collaboration, however, can also be baked into the above scenario. Inevitably, one of these loaner processes will work better than the other. When that best practice or best process is identified, these initial competitors can collaboratively share what worked and what didn’t between both of their plans. While this next step doesn’t happen naturally, a commitment to improving the entire industry gives that extra push we need to be willing to transparently open up in these important ways.

Self-interest isn’t all bad
Another example of this tenuous balance of collaboration versus competition is the promotion battles you see raging in departments all across the country. There is but one quality assurance specialist role in your hospital, and there are five technicians with their hopes pinned on filling it themselves. Do we ask them all to sing “Kum Ba Ya” and wish each other good luck? Maybe so. But the practical outworking of a competitive spirit actually adds much more value to the entire equation at the individual, department, and even industry level.

What happens in the case of this quality assurance role is that these five technicians begin a process of self-improvement, driven in large part through self-interest, which is understandable because they really want the job. This self-improvement entails learning as much as they can about the hospital’s unique inventory, spending extra time diving into the inner workings of the department tracking system, and pursuing continuing education that will differentiate their résumé (such as microcredentials or secondary certifications). If they are smart, all five technicians begin doing this long before the job is ever posted, even though they know that only one of them will get it.

The fateful day comes when the final interviews are completed and the job is offered with a joyful acceptance. The competition for the job title may be over, but there is more than one winner. Not only do all five of those self-interested technicians now have a much deeper understanding of the sterile processing workflow of their department, but the entire department itself stands to benefit from it. The new quality assurance specialist is (hopefully) the highest qualified candidate out of the driven group of eager applicants, and the remaining four are now that much more equipped to provide higher levels of reprocessing service than ever before. Literally everybody wins, even the rest of the department who simply watched the competitive process play out. These five may not have known it, but they were collaborating together for an improvement much bigger than themselves or their résumés.

Going for the gold and the goal
Whether we admit it or not, sterile processing improvement is a team sport. There are no lone rangers out there who can save our industry by themselves. That being said, pursuing healthy competition such as promotions, recognition, publication, credentials, and the like is not as hostile to the collaborative spirit as they may seem. These things sometimes appear selfish or self-serving on the surface, but all of them have the potential to push our entire industry that much further toward our goal of becoming better. If you can’t get the job yourself, make sure you challenge the other applicants to be even better than you. If you want that big award for your team, use every competitive encouragement you can muster to drive your technicians to reach higher, dream bigger, and fight dirtier. No matter the final outcome, we’ll all be the better for it.

What say you?

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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