5 surprises from running 50 workshops with NHS trust boards

Since Spring 2020, we’ve been working with NHS Providers to help NHS trust boards build their understanding of digital, and increase their confidence and capability to lead their organisations through digital transformation.

One of the ways we do this is by running workshops that help the board reflect on what digital means for them and their organisations. We like to leave boards with a sense of what they could do next, or differently.

By speaking to board members in advance, we tailor each of these sessions according to each trust’s specific context and needs. By the end of 2021, we had run over 50 board development sessions with over 50 trusts. Here are 5 of the surprising things we learned along the way.

Hands with latex gloves - photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Hands with latex gloves - photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The challenges are the same as in other sectors

Before I joined Public Digital, I worked at Cancer Research UK. I worked with lots of different teams - from fundraisers and marketers, to volunteer managers, to research grant teams, to cancer scientists and clinicians.

No matter the problem my teams were trying to solve, we faced the same, systemic challenges. This made sense, because I was always working in the same organisation and ultimately towards the same mission.

And the same challenges exist in NHS trusts, too. The big three are:

  1. The challenge of creating sustainable change when your funding model is not sustained

  2. The proliferation of ‘stuff’ that pushes us all to be driven towards outputs rather than outcomes, even when we want to be outcome focused

  3. How incredibly hard people find it to prioritise, and how counterintuitive stopping work can feel

I think the challenges are the same because digital transformation is about humans rather than technology.

That’s why, at our workshops, we spend so much of our time talking about the environment and culture that board leaders are creating, as well as digital technology.

Time spent on building shared understanding is never wasted

We open every session in the same way: by talking about what digital means.

Everyone on the board has the opportunity to share what digital means to them. Then we share the definition of digital that we use. This exercise always uncovers a wide range of interpretations. Without fail, acknowledging this range of perspectives at the start paves the way for a more meaningful and productive session.

It doesn’t matter what level you’re operating at, how experienced you are, how clever you are, what sector you’re in, or what you’re trying to do. All teams need shared understanding. It never fails to amaze me how far you can get, simply by spending a little bit of time upfront making sure you’re all on the same page.

Busy people will make time for this

People on boards have endless pressures and priorities, and are working in the middle of a global health crisis. I am consistently surprised and humbled that such busy people are willing to engage in this topic for such a length of time - when we run these sessions virtually, we’ve found an initial 3 hours works best. What’s clear is that digital transformation is a meaningful goal for the people that are leading our NHS on the ground - not just another buzzword.

Running the sessions virtually has worked really well

For each workshop we’ll identify topics that we think the trust would benefit from having some time to explore and debate.

We often bring in leaders from other NHS trusts to share their experiences and honest reflections on digital transformation. At Public Digital, we have an incredible network of world-leading digital transformation experts who we can bring in for specialist topics. But these people are based all over the world.

Delivering these sessions remotely has let us get more people involved. No-one has to travel, so it’s opened up a world of possibility - be that beaming in a colleague from London to Stoke, or a fellow NHS board leader based in Durham to a board in Devon.

Trusts are user centred by nature, but not always when it comes to digital

Patient centricity is at the heart of the NHS constitution. We have come across lots of examples of people on the frontline who are focused on understanding what patients and staff need, testing their assumptions and learning their way forward. However, they are not always applying user-centred research and design practices to their digital services.

With support, this inclination to understanding user needs can easily be adapted to help support the trust’s digital agenda. This crops up so often we’ve developed a masterclass to help NHS leaders understand how to go about doing that.

In more than 50 sessions across just over a year and a half, we’ve learned that NHS trust boards are bringing great instincts to their digital transformation work, and they’re ready to make changes that start the transformation of their organisations. Most importantly, boards are ready and willing to take on collective responsibility for digital.

We’re almost 2 years into the digital boards’ programme with NHS Providers, and we’re constantly applying what we’ve learned. If you’d like to sign your board up for a bespoke board development session, get in touch - we’d love to work with you. And as we look to the future and plan for the emergence of Integrated Care Systems, it’s clear that the digital transformation journey in the NHS is just getting started.

See also: our NHS Providers case study.

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