When two tribes go to war work

Covid has lowered barriers to tech adoption, but the culture change mustn’t stop here. The opportunities (and challenges) of partnering with other services are just waiting to be grasped, says Clare Morri.

There’s a reason for the slogan ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe’. Most of us know the warm fuzzy feeling we get from being part of a collective; losing touch with our communities – at the school gate, the gym, on football terraces or at live gigs – has been an unexpectedly difficult dimension of this Covid pandemic.

Of course, the workplace can be particularly tribal, with lanyards, uniforms and shared vocabularies broadcasting our allegiances, and physical spaces or  shared professional perspectives solidifying our territories.

Belonging to a team helps us feel safe, seen and empowered to act; it is a positive source of energy for many organisations, but when it comes to working in partnership with others this strength can be a problem.

Across the public sector, we have a strong, unifying common goal: giving people in our communities the care, support and services they deserve and expect. Serving local people (sometimes voters) should be the mission that pulls organisations and services to work together, and digital solutions can help deliver this on the ground.

But, instinctive tribal attitudes are counterproductive when it comes to progressing a digital agenda that supports our common goal.

Deep, committed partnerships across services are rare, but the benefits are huge: they deliver the joined-up service local people want; they avoid inconvenient, confusing and expensive duplication of effort; they allow the pooling of resources and the sharing of risk. In short, partnerships helps us work faster, better, and harder.

At our recent LGA masterclass on culture change and partnerships we heard from Kate Walker, digital programme director at Suffolk and North East Essex ICS, who sees tribalism and protectionism as one of four very real barriers to collaboration. “We all invest in our own organisations’ digital capability,” she pointed out. “How do we unlock the value of that to better serve people?” Four years ago Kate reached out to digital leaders from both the NHS and local government in the East of England. The result was the East Accord, “a collaborative network of those trying to effect change in the digital, data or technology space.” The pandemic, so divisive in our personal lives, has proved a catalyst for change in Eastern England. “Effectively all the barriers to collaboration fell away,” says Kate. “We had a common purpose, a collective accountability and a challenge coming towards us that was unprecedented.”

After years of grappling with clashing priorities, differing capacities, siloed knowledge and tribal instincts, Kate’s team saw huge progress. “We worked together, and we broke those barriers. In reality we accelerated plans we already had: we enabled video consultation, we enabled Teams…We enabled rapidly the use of some innovative technology such as robotic process automation to be able to book and schedule 20,000 staff for vaccination at two or three weeks notice. It was a staggering set of achievements, but for me the learning point was that barriers came down. We had trust and confidence in one another and were able to move at a pace that really showed how we could achieve real transformation.”

Stepping outside our tribes and into collaborative partnerships isn’t easy, but for those of us trying to drive forward a digital-first agenda our unifying principal – focussing on patients, citizens, service users – is the best reason for trying. You can find tools developed in collaboration with the LGA to help your organisation plan and navigate the first steps towards partnerships at rethinkpartners.co.uk/resources.

About Clare Morris
Clare Morris is a former NHS leader and co-founder of Rethink Partners, working with health and care organisations to visualise and implement change for good.
clare@rethinkpartners.co.uk

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