The new challenge of change – resisting the headwinds of opposition

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NHS organisations are in a new race against time. Having emerged from the initial pandemic response bruised and weary, they now face another monumental challenge: how to embed the right change; how to grasp this once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise healthcare in the UK.

I don’t know about you, but crikey I’m tired. How many of us are running organisations, or departments, whilst balancing home schooling, supporting clients, patients or customers and essentially making sure that our partners, relationships and general life stuff is just ok? We’ve been running on fumes for some time now. And that leads people to crave a semblance of normality.

This is not just an individual experience, this is organisational culture. If you could ask a whole organisation how it was feeling, words like knackered, lacklustre and exhausted would be common.

Five years of changes in five weeks

We have witnessed Herculean efforts to make changes to ensure the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed by the pandemic. One client told me his NHS trust had implemented five years-worth of changes in just five weeks to cope with the demands of Covid-19.

Changes were made because there was no choice. Face-to-face consultations were switched to phone or video calls. People were discharged at ferocious speed. Lists were analysed to prioritise those who had to be seen in a clinical environment, with others switched to remote consultations.

Another clinician revealed their department needed to see just three patients in person from a 140-patient list. Under normal circumstances the other 137 would have been asked to attend a clinic too.

There has been no change programme like it in the working careers of anyone in the NHS. It must not end here.

The winds of opposition

But, as we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic, the imperative and the appetite to maintain changes starts to ebb away. The headwinds of opposition are gaining momentum. Change-resistant culture. Mechanistic governance processes. A desire to go back to “normal”. Customer demands. National pressures. Seasonal challenges. All of these factors reduce the window of opportunity for embedding change.

A rapid and bold response is necessary. Not just to maintain the changes that have been made, but to push further.

Which change is the right change?

I’m not advocating keeping all change. But keeping the right change is the only way to capitalise on this opportunity delivered via a pandemic.

Leaders must swiftly understand which changes they should keep and why. They need to build the narrative that will bring their people along. They need swift plans and abundant energy – which is understandably in short supply. They must dig deep to lead the defense against slipping back to the status quo. This system-changing opportunity must not be squandered.

And the clock is ticking. The headwinds of opposition blow harder the further we are from the pandemic coal face.

We’re working with clients to help them take action now. To bring people to a consensus about what needs doing and by when. What changes should be kept, and what can go back to how it was.

But it’s leading us to ask even bigger questions.

What the pandemic has shown society is that health is our most important asset. Why else would you bring an economy to a grinding halt? If that’s the case, what exactly is healthcare? What would the 21st century’s healthcare system look like if we could create it the way it should be?

These questions deserve further thought. They serve as a context to what must be done now to retain the right changes. But the window of opportunity is closing, and it must not be missed.

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