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Tony Hunter: To survive, care services need a culture of responsible risk-taking

Tony Hunter
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The duck-billed platypus is a bizarre creature.

It looks strange and it’s one of the few mammals that lays eggs rather than gives birth. Its image has been used for many things from an Olympic mascot to a secret agent in a children’s animation. In evolutionary terms it’s a great example of innovation. If evolution was ‘playing it safe’, the duck-billed platypus wouldn’t have appeared on the original blueprints.

And isn’t it tempting to play it safe? On a tough improvement journey, when providing care and support, there is much to be said for keeping your head down and focusing on getting the basics right. Conversely, it can be tempting to embrace innovation for innovation’s sake but just because something’s new, that doesn’t always make it better.

Here’s a radical, platypus-shaped thought: however major the issues an organisation in trouble needs to tackle, a positive, responsible risk-taking culture will be critical to sustained development and success. That means ensuring there is room to breathe, try things out and learn from both success and failure. An organisation that has battened down the hatches and focuses only on the tried and tested may get the basics right but is probably not positioning itself for the future, for which a culture of innovation is essential.

We hear of innovative practice every day. Our recent work on asset-based approaches, where the skills and strengths that exist in communities are used to do things like reduce isolation, has eleven blogs detailing innovative practice from York to Barnet and from Oldham to Antrim.

In Lincolnshire they’ve mapped what community assets exist with a list of small businesses, sole traders, voluntary and community organisations that offer services to the public such as meal delivery, cleaning, pet care, yoga, household maintenance and housing. This has helped to identify and harness an untapped resource of services and support that local people can now easily access. But it’s not what the commissioners of services would have predicted 30 years ago.

In his book, Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos asks whether evolution is predictable. He says there are many cases where the tiniest change – a random mutation or an ancient butterfly sneeze – caused evolution to take a completely different course. Every now and again a strange thing comes along, like the duck-billed platypus – and perhaps that’s a good thing.

Tony Hunter, chief executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Julia Ross

    Loved Tony Hunter's piece on the duck billed platypus and responsible risk taking. It put me in mind of the culture of risk taking in the disruptive technologies where there are actually awards for the most disruptive people and bodies. Take the example of Prof. Rachel Dunscombe, Director of Digital for Salford Royal Group, CEO of the NHS Digital Academy, SRO for Greater Manchester Datawell, etc etc. She has extensive experience of implementing successful technologies in healthcare, consumer and financial markets and won the most disruptive CIO in Europe 2016 in the Talent unleashed awards.
    Social care is nothing if not disruptive, so come on SCIE, lets hear it for the disrupters - those real agents for change.
    Risk taking also needs to be calculated to be truely responsible and that is best achieved by a deep understanding of the risk and predictive factors. Our journey in developing whole population health risk stratification is a major factor in our name change from Pi Care and Health Trak to PredictX. We talk of Black swans in technology, duck billed platypus may not be as beautiful but functional and adaptive they clearly are.

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