Ever felt isolated in your job? How about certain that you were reinventing the wheel but no idea what to do differently?
The experience isn’t uncommon, as I found in my previous role leading UCLPartners’ work on patient involvement and experience. I started in that role by meeting with a range of my counterparts who had responsibility for patient experience and involvement within our partner organisations (hospitals, universities, commissioners, voluntary sector and more).
They talked at length about feeling isolated, both in their institutions but also in their local area. While working within similar geographies, many of them were unaware of other peers. They were certain they weren’t the only ones doing what they did, but felt unable to do anything about it, and uncertain that they were making a difference. All felt more could be done to share resources and guidance, pool training and support mechanisms, while increasing networking opportunities.
So, over the course of two years, that’s what we did, building a network which grew to over 150 people and continues to this day. What did we learn along the way?
1. Power of people in collaboration I started out talking to people about what I could do to help them do their jobs better and rapidly realised greater collaboration would benefit everyone. We relied on the goodwill of busy people to understand the intrinsic benefits of new relationships across the system and let this growing sense of community be the centre. People were open about their struggles and learning and through that the network became stronger and grew as Leads told colleagues to give it a try.
2. Being clear about purpose while making things happen Gaining new members regularly meant we had to balance re-affirming our reason for being with keeping momentum and making things happen. We developed a simple way to bring new members on board and made sure we started all face-to-face events with ‘why the network exists’ and ‘what are we trying to do’. It was great to realise this consistent messaging made engaged members more confident at spreading the word.
3. Embracing success and failure Sharing success with peers and colleagues can have a tremendous impact on job satisfaction. There weren’t mechanisms for sharing great practice at one organisation with the organisation next door, let alone failures. We started ‘safe space’ enforced networking at events sharing the good, bad and ugly, alongside written case studies on our private shared site and asked external speakers to talk about successes and lessons learned too to encourage this culture. This helped to build trust across members.
4. Language is difficult I lived in the world of ‘patient, carer and public, involvement and engagement’ for 6 years which, when combined with ‘patient experience’, ‘user experience’, ‘customers’, and ‘participation’, has provided a terminology minefield. Language in areas of expertise is often fraught and can cause artificial division that tears at the heart of collaboration. We learned quickly to be open about these differences in language but to focus on the overarching purpose and work backwards from there. When we started with patients and the population, members were able to put aside language and learn together.
5. Networking is king After almost every face-to-face event we asked members ‘what one thing could we do better next time?’ and the overwhelming response every time was: more networking. By June 2016, almost two-thirds of our forum content was devoted to different ways of getting people to talk to each other and yet consistently they would tell us they wanted more of it. People came to events for the learning, so we needed a theme and speakers that would engage them, but they stayed part of the network for the ongoing relationships with others.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get everything right. Starting again as we develop the UK Improvement Alliance, I’ll advocate for greater patience, good things take time and this is particularly true in the world of collaboration and networks. I’ll also encourage greater reflection on what success looks, and feels, like - planning for measuring progress at the beginning is important. It won’t be perfect but that’s ok, it doesn’t need to be.
What particularly stands out, though, is, in an NHS full of quantitative targets and RAG ratings, how hard I found it to explain that the success of our network was getting people to talk to each other. Why do we often feel embarrassed to say that there is value in developing relationships and collaboration? How do we change the culture of the NHS in 2016 to make this a priority?
You can read more about the UCLPartners Involvement Leads Network here – contact Chelsea Atherton if you want to know more.