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Practice comment

"Without time to think, the fire of innovation dies out"

Over the last six months, I have been privileged to meet and work with around 300 senior nurses from across England.

They come from a wide range of backgrounds but, without exception, are dedicated and clever people who have the drive and determination to offer excellent nursing services. When nurses get into a room together and have time to think and time to look at some old things in new ways, they spark with new ideas and become energised. It has been a great journey and an energising experience for me.

What I observed has got me thinking about the challenges that face us in healthcare delivery, such as if our need to go at “top speed” all the time is creating a climate and culture where people who know what needs to be done to make things better have no thinking time.

What do I mean by thinking time? I mean time to reflect. Time to explore new ideas and time to have conversations - conversations that help us to craft the best solutions and innovations that we so desperately need.

At first, I wondered if I had missed something. In a quick review of leadership on the web, most of the things I read concerned doing more in the time available. There was plenty about how to fit in more tasks and how to be more productive, but there seems to be little about making time to think.

There are other examples of how value has been placed on thinking time. Google is probably the most famous with its Innovation Time Off, where staff are given 20% of their time to work on projects they feel passionate about. It’s important to note that this approach led to the successful development of Gmail and Google News.

I know this isn’t always practical in healthcare but, surely, space to think might help us liberate some of the innovative ideas we desperately need?

The NHS Institute produces great tools for healthcare staff to use and most are based on the principle that people working in the NHS can innovate and create solutions. I strongly agree with this principle but I wonder if we are starving the fire of innovation of oxygen - we don’t give leaders thinking time, so the flame soon dies out. Most of the NHS Institute’s materials are task-oriented, which is great - we need great guides and tools to help us do our jobs. However, there appears to be little recognition of the need to give people time to reflect and think in order to be creative.

I spent three days with groups of senior nurses during leadership programmes we recently ran. I believe that they all had time to have great conversations and time to think during the programmes, which will hopefully turn into new ways of working and may provide new solutions. Maybe that’s a luxury in today’s climate or, perhaps, it’s something we cannot afford to do without if we want to find the best solutions for the challenges that face us.

So, let me ask you, do you have enough thinking time?

Anne Cooper is national clinical lead for nursing, Department of Health Informatics Directorate

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