Mersey Care Health Trust: An example of distributed leadership

May 28, 2009
DIY Handbook for Action Learning

DIY Handbook for Action Learning

Mersey Care NHS Trust is developing an international reputation as a creative organization through a range of innovative projects. It also serves as an exemplar for distributed leadership processes

Mersey Care is a major National Health Service (NHS) Trust serving the sprawling region of Merseyside in North West England, and incorporating Liverpool as its major city.

Chief Executive Alan Yates realised a few years ago that a creative organisation needs more than one creative leader. In formulating and implementing a strategy for one of the country’s largest NHS institutions, he realised he would need to find ways of stimulating creativity across the organization, and out into the community. Rather that setting up a formal structure, he encouraged informal networks, giving special responsibilities to Assistant Chief Executive Mandy Chivers. Senior figures at the Trust such as Medical Director David Fearnley were to offer considerable support as the creative initiatives grew.

Liverpool: European Capital of Culture

The trust recognised special opportunities with the regional efforts to promote Liverpool as the 2008-9 European City of Culture. By working closely with other community organisations, Chivers identified a like-minded group of people interested in stimulating creativity with focus on mental health and well-being.

Julie Hanna was quick to see the benefits of such a collaboration in her role as manager for health and well-being programmes:

Creativity, arts and culture are positively impacting on people’s health and well being. Liverpool, as European Capital of Culture 2008, has acted as a catalyst bringing together artists, cultural partners, health and care practitioners. There is a willingness to explore and develop possibilities of working in partnership in a pioneering spirit of “seizing the moment” of Liverpool’s cultural significance. This is another story to tell underneath the large and crowd-pulling events. Through culture and the arts we can find meaning, make sense of our experiences, express our thoughts and emotions, make and sustain relationships, discover skills and qualities in our selves and others. These experiences provide an opportunity to integrate body, mind and spirit; to learn and to make changes in lifestyle

The work included a variety of local and regional events, and an international partnership with Stavager in Norway.

The Creativity Network

Chivers began to find like-minded individuals in and beyond her own organisation, and encouraged a range of creative initiatives grounded in the professional activities of the trust. With strong leadership from Judith Mawer, an informal creativity network developed through which individual efforts were encouraged and supported. In the period of a few years over fifty people became associated with the informal network, sharing ideas, and offering various public events.

The Action Learning Initiatives

Externally, links with Universities were strengthened, and projects sponsored. The focus was to achieve learning through doing, innovative achievements as well as spin-off staff development gains.

The involvement with the Liverpool Year of Culture projects enhanced the strategic efforts both of the trust and the Culture initiative itself.

A similar mutual reinforcement occurred when Mersey Care became involved in another regional initiative, this time around action learning. The heirs to the work of action learning pioneer Reg Revans had being trying to establish a Revans Institute. The trust was to play a major part in the formation of the institute through the efforts of an international network of action learning practitioners which established a home base at Manchester Business School.

Chivers had obtained her doctorate within an active action learning group at nearby Salford University which still houses extensive archives of the papers of Reg Revans. The Trust helped advance the cause of Action Learning substantially, and has produced a practical handbook to initiate action learning efforts.

As indicated on the Mersey Care website:

Action Learning is a simple but powerful approach and a discipline that supports transformational change. It is an effective way that people can learn with and from each other. Groups or sets as they are sometimes called, work through questions and challenge to understand and develop insight in order to take actions that progress complex issues [applying] a rigorous blend of critical thinking, questioning, practical action and emotional intelligence. It does not work instantly or because of something clever outside of ourselves, but because we commit to this discipline and take personal responsibility to act.

Creativity, Health and well-being

The multiplicity of activities under the creativity initiatives were captured in a document by Judith Mawer which lists no fewer than seventeen projects each demonstrating creativity being applied within the context of health and well-being.

Among them, LWD was particularly fascinated by the therapeutic applications of creativity such as the work with Judith of Lynn King and Julie Hannah. The powerful image of a treasure chest as a means of capturing creative ideas is one particularly vivid illustration of a creative methodology.

The creative organization and its leadership

Can we learn something from Mersey Care about the creative organization and creative leadership? Something interesting and rather special is emerging there. The close links between action, innovation and learning mirror the case reports of the celebrated creative organization Ideo.

Both Mersey Care and Ideo have informal structures (as well as the necessary formal ones, required by Health Service statute in the Mersey Care case) . The informal activities enable individuals to introduce creative changes within their individual professional responsibilities, from clinical dispensing innovations to imaginative ways of delivery of service care

Overall, the work of The Trust is increasingly and rightfully being recognised internationally, winning awards, and earning recognition for Mersey Care as a creative organization.