Unity, not uniformity – why we think apart is as important as together

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What’s the value in togetherness? That was the topic explored by this month’s NHS Providers Conference, building on feelings of detachment and separation created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

And while it’s clear there is value in togetherness, in connection, in closeness, we’d also argue there’s also significant merit in being apart.

We’re not suggesting that disconnection from your team or organisation is a good thing. Far from it. But when togetherness becomes sameness, group think and homogeny, it becomes the enemy of diversity, innovation, and new ideas.

When togetherness becomes same old, same old

As the NHS faces the biggest challenge in its history – restoration – we can’t afford to do the same things and expect different results. Almost everything is different now. So while there’s a place for sharing ideas and best practice, distinctiveness, difference, and diversity must also be prized.

To create this different thinking, we need space. Time apart. Reflection. But we also need new perspectives. Novel insights. Fresh ideas. And much of what we need will come from involving a diverse range of people in our plans.

Working only together. Thinking as one. Doing what we’ve always done. They are the biggest risks to recovery.

Unity, not uniformity, is what NHS organisations should strive for. After all, each trust, each primary care network, each new Integrated Care System, serves a distinctly diverse population. While services remain the same, the context, the place as the NHS likes to call it, is different.

The new ICS challenge

Collaboration is critical. But this must not mean doing what we’ve always done. Nor must it mean listening only to the loudest, most powerful voices.

Each new ICS must find a way to bring its constituent parts together. To agree a strategy for their area which will work. To create a step-change in the way care is delivered.

Doing that will require time together. But it will also need time apart.

Bringing new partners to the table to create a fully-integrated care system will require skilled leadership and careful management. It will mean building connections as well as supporting independence. The scales will be finely balanced. And the stakes have never been higher.

This time last year we argued that boards needed to prioritise time together. That’s still important. But there is also considerable value in a dynamically-distant post-Covid landscape. The challenge for all NHS organisations is to find the right blend of together and apart, to create both the strategy and the unity needed to deliver.


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