Thursday, 24 December 2009

The continuum of spread: from outward communication to behavioural change

A few days ago I toyed with the idea of producing an FAQ sheet to cover the top 10 questions I am asked about how to spread good practice. Then I realised the answers are in my books and also in this blog. However, I'll revisit some of these questions over the coming weeks.

The top question is.... "how do I spread good practice"! And this usually sends me into panic mode. My immediate response includes:
What do you want to spread (and really, what, like skills, attitudes, behaviours etc)
How do you know it is good practice and who will recognise it as such?
Who is the target audience? Are you sure you are meaning individuals and not organisations?
What do you need people to do?
Why are you planning to do this? What is your stated and underlying intention?
I could go on...

I realise now that in most cases the big question comes from people in charge of something. Either they have the legitimate authority for a group (like Medical Director, CEO) or they are in a facilitative role (National body, program managers, consultancy). In both cases they want someone else to do something. The word "spread" gets used because either they have little authority over the people they want to change or they believe a softer-bottom-up-gentle approach will help people make the change. They may be right.

As the request to spread is coming from those "in charge" it is not surprising that the underlying question I think they are trying to ask is "How can we best communicate our good practice?". How do we communicate in a way that enables the right people to become aware of and do something about our topic? This is the standard approach to spread.

My experience in the last 10+ years on helping make large scale changes across healthcare systems is communication strategies and plans are not enough. Consider this continuum:

Spread (Communicate/Market/Advertise)--->
Communicate for behaviour change (Social Marketing)--->
Organisational change activities (OD, improvement projects)

Traditional spread programs limit themselves to clever and thoughtful (hopefully) design of outward communication. I say hopefully because in the most cases in healthcare the default button is set to "write an article" or "type up a case study".

As a minimum I feel spread needs to include the behavioural change aspect. Without this the communication is worth-less. The techniques from social marketing are a good place to start. This also means the behaviours required to change need to be identified as part of the "what" of the good practice.

Finally there is the perspective of the organisation. Again, my experience has led me to favour this approach. When the intended changes are part of or as a minimum identified as contribution to the organisation's purpose and objectives, with appropriate leadership support, then imprivement happens. Without this contextual setting the speed of adoption is much slower. Also, the breadth of adoption across the organisation may be limited. And there may be inappropriate adaptation to the good practice to such an extent that the intended benefits are not achieved.

So how do we spread good practice? I suggest the first place to start answering this question is to ask "why do you want to spread this good practice?". The aim here is to answer this in detail to get beyond the "to make things better" answer. This reframing will elicit the underlying motives and will direct an appropriate spread strategy.

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