An innovative guide to team days by Stuart Eglin

There are five core team members in NHS R&D North West. We have a very busy schedule, three of us are part-time and a lot of our work takes place outside our office base. A couple of years ago it was feeling like we were flying around and hardly ever having time to reflect, time to work together and to plan our future. We were so busy in delivery mode that we had little time to see the bigger picture.

Tentatively I suggested to the team that we should spend some time in reflection. We were in the middle of a series of workshops to look at the work that we needed to do to build strong and supportive communities of practise. It struck me – that if we were going to build strong communities, we had to begin with ourselves.

Rehearsal Day is our community building time. We take a day a month and shut the doors to the outside world. For the first year, we ran these days in two halves – morning is structured and afternoon is open, a space for us to be creative. More recently we felt that the structured part of the day could be managed in a weekly rapid catch-up. The whole day is now open to explore broader themes.

We have now run 25 Rehearsal Days, each one pushing us a little further forwards. Each time we sit down together and use a private Google Plus page to capture our time together – photos, video, web links and short posts from the whole team – so that we are capturing the learning as we work together. This is a key component of the day as it enhances reflection. For the first day, I asked everyone to make sure that they posted at least 5 photos, a short video (from their phone) and a 200-word post of their impressions on the day.

The days are a time for us to learn together, to stimulate ideas and make space where deep thinking can emerge. We show videos – often TED Talks – and we look for inspiration around us that will push our thinking forwards. We also spend time looking at the work that we are doing with an open mind, challenging the way we do things and being open to new ways of looking at the work that we do.

Team Awaydays are nothing new. However, this isn’t time away – it’s time in our base, rehearsing in private, trying things out, testing out how we work together. The unstructured element of the work is key – that is how we make space to be creative and innovative. We call them rehearsal days, because they are different from our performance space, when we are out in the world working with others.

The experiment of Rehearsal Days is still in process – each month the approach we are taking shifts and adapts. It is important not to settle into a pattern as this would miss the point of creating an environment of constant innovation.

What have we achieved so far?

  • The team is much more open to debating how we work and testing out new ideas
  • We are much clearer about the core values and behaviours that underpin our work and we have had time to test these out in a safe space
  • We have had time to look at our working space and explore how to make it more conducive to what we are trying to achieve
  • The culture of the team has shifted as we have worked together to be an inclusive, optimistic team where everyone’s ideas are valuable
  • We are learning how to have fun together and see play and enjoyment as a key part of work
  • We are looking much more widely for inspiration – seeing ideas that can be adapted in the most diverse of places

It has been such an exciting journey. As the leader I have learnt to hold back and resist the temptation to plan ahead which would stifle the process we are developing. This is challenging as it means being prepared to feel out of control in order to make a more innovative and participative space.  It is critical not to set out a prescriptive agenda ahead of the day as that closes down thinking.

The payback for doing this is huge. Our work is moving forward at such a pace and we are creating new programmes and projects of work that would never have happened without Rehearsal Days.