My “Best of Health” article for January 2023: 8 accelerators for breed health improvement

My January “Best of Health” article is usually either a reflection on the past year or a focus on the New Year. No matter how you look at it, the pedigree dog world continues to be in the spotlight with multiple voices calling for change and improvement. Headlines about breeding legislation from across the world throughout 2022 reflect the fact that, for many people (and dogs), health improvement hasn’t happened fast enough. Our ability to implement change simply hasn’t kept pace with the pressures we face.

I have said many times that this isn’t a veterinary or science problem, it’s a human behaviour change problem and we need to get better at managing change. Professor John Kotter’s 8-step change model was first published in 1995 but was enhanced in 2014 when it became the 8 accelerators of change. This month, as we look ahead to 2023, I want to introduce you to the 8 accelerators and how they might apply to your breed.

Create a sense of urgency

This is the starting point and is all about focusing on the big opportunity that a breed faces. We need to present this as an opportunity, not a threat, and it must appeal to heads and hearts. Beating people up with more data on the prevalence of health conditions isn’t going to cut it. The opportunity is to demonstrate that registered pedigree dogs that participate in KC-regulated activities are leading the drive towards improvement. We should all be able to unite behind a commonality that dog shows and other activities are a force for good.

For your breed, do you see a big opportunity that could unite everyone?

Build a guiding coalition

The guiding coalition means looking beyond the “usual suspects” and engaging a broad spectrum of people who are motivated to accelerate your breed’s improvement efforts. 

The guiding coalition needs to include diverse perspectives and a common commitment to do the right thing for your breed. However, this has to start with Breed Club and Council officers who are in positions of influence and who can marshall resources to enable improvement projects. 

Form a strategic vision and initiatives

A great strategic vision motivates people to take action. For some breeds, the vision might be to increase the popularity of the breed to avoid its demise. For others, it might be to address a particular health issue that is widespread or is causing increasing concern. For some, it might be about diverting demand away from unrecognised colours, particularly if these are associated with health or temperament issues. The breeds currently listed as Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “high profile breeds”) might set themselves the challenge of moving to Category 2.

Strategic initiatives are targeted projects and activities that will make a tangible difference to your breed. These could be screening programmes, education initiatives aimed at puppy buyers, or support for owners to help them improve the welfare of their dogs (“be a better owner”).

Enlist a volunteer army

This means looking beyond Breed Club communities and engaging with other groups of owners. Every breed probably has numerous Facebook Groups of enthusiastic owners who meet, talk and often raise funds for their breed’s health projects. These groups give you far more reach than can be expected from a breed club. The 5 largest Dachshund Facebook Groups, for example, cumulatively have more than 80,000 members. Regional Dachshund Groups have, on average, around 5000 members. Find out who the Admins are and get them onboard. 

You have to build enthusiasm around the vision, and create a feeling that people “want to” be involved, rather than “have to” be involved. You can’t, and won’t, get everyone onboard. Research shows that you just need 15% of a group to be able to build enough momentum to make progress. 

Enable action by removing barriers

Kotter says that innovation is less about generating brand new ideas and more about knocking down barriers to making those ideas a reality.

If health screening programmes are expensive, breed clubs and breed charities may be able to offer subsidies. If people can’t find a convenient local vet to carry out screening on their dog, set up screening sessions at club shows and events. Make it easy for people to get their dogs health screened. Remove the friction that prevents participation.

Generate short-term wins

People get fed up waiting to see improvements promised by long-term strategic visions. You have to find some quick wins and then shout about them. They enable you to track progress towards your vision and they energise others to drive change. 

A “win” is anything, big or small, that moves you towards your vision. Publish the data that shows how you have reduced the frequency of a deleterious genetic mutation, or the data showing year-on-year uptake of a screening programme. Trend data is particularly useful, so if you’ve conducted multiple breed health surveys, share the evidence that participation is increasing or, better still, that a health condition is reducing in prevalence.

These quick wins are important because they enable you to demonstrate progress, even if the real goal is likely to take longer to achieve. They also motivate other people to get onboard with your improvement initiatives. Jam today, not jam tomorrow.

Sustain acceleration

It’s easy to take your foot off the accelerator after a few quick wins. Don’t. You have to use those wins to enable further improvements. Get more people involved and expand the volunteer army. Getting new people involved will mean they are likely to come up with more ideas (and energy) for achieving your next improvements. 

It can be really hard to maintain motivation and it’s not surprising that we see a turnover of Breed Health Coordinators or club committee members. That’s why it’s really helpful if each breed has a Health Team (Committee) who can share the load and support each other.

Institute change

What is your succession plan for when your Breed Health Coordinator retires and for maintaining a diversely talented Health Committee? Most breeds will have vets or vet nurses in their club community. These people can add credibility and bring much-needed scientific capability to health improvement initiatives.

Continuity of leadership is one of the success factors for sustainable performance improvement. Accelerators 1-7 are all about building capability for change and improvement. Accelerator 8 is about sustaining it over the long-term.

Kotter’s original change model implied there was a linear, sequential, set of steps required to bring about sustainable change. His “accelerator” model implies that many of the steps can be run concurrently and continuously.

I’ll leave the final words and thoughts for the New Year to Dr. Deming: “You don’t have to do any of these things; survival isn’t compulsory”.

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