Week 2: why constant feedback matters

The last ten days have felt like ten weeks — in a good way. They’ve also made me think about how people give each other feedback, and how important this is.

On Monday I was at our drug and alcohol service in Coventry. Then Thursday was at three of our GP surgeries in Liverpool. I’ve spent time with people who (usually) work in Sheffield, Harrogate, Brixton, Birmingham, Manchester, Shropshire, Peterborough and Newcastle too. (Thanks to everyone who’s been so generous with their time — and if I missed you when I was there, sorry! Please do get in touch with any thoughts.)

I’ve been asking the questions you’d expect: how did you get here? What’s good about your work? What advice would you have given yourself six months ago? If you had a magic wand you could wave at Addaction, what would you change? And what should we keep doing?

Here’s what I’ve heard:

First, focus on what our service users need

What matters above all is the people who use our services. That’s the reason people at Addaction work here. They’re realistic about the difference we can make, and optimistic too. I’ve heard about huge steps forward. And I’ve heard about other experiences too — where we just couldn’t help or someone wasn’t ready to change.

Focusing on our users sounds obvious. But sometimes senior people in every kind of organisation can slip into thinking it’s sustaining the organisation itself that matters, rather than the experience of their service users.

The point of Addaction isn’t to grow income or ‘market share’ regardless: we don’t have shareholders to please. All that matters in the end is to help more people make positive changes in their lives — when they’re ready — by providing great services. To do that effectively, we need to make sure that everyone in the organisation especially those furthest from front line delivery like me properly understand what our users need, and what works.

(Here’s the conversation that has had the biggest impact on me so far. We’ve set up a small, welcoming space in Coventry that people can feel comfortable in while they wait to see a support worker, or just relax. It’s got comfy sofas and endless tea. I heard about how our service had helped someone make a profound and positive change in their life. They were now spending as much time as they could welcoming people into our service when they came through the doors, making sure they felt comfortable and could talk to someone straight away if they wanted to, and generally showing others that they could make it too — with no pressure or expectation.)

Second, a culture where constant feedback is normal

The other reason I’ve been asking lots of questions and listening to what people say is that the best teams and organisations have a culture of constant feedback. They don’t store it up until it becomes a big deal. They say ‘well done’ whenever it’s true. And they say ‘that didn’t go so well, what should we do differently?’ all the time too.

Lots of teams I’ve met in Addaction already have that culture. So I’ve been encouraging people to say what’s working and what’s not. Where I can offer suggestions for how to improve things, I’ve done that too — while being clear they’re just suggestions. I’m working in the open plan office and having as few conversations in closed rooms as possible. I’ve made my diary open for everyone in the organisation to see too.

(In my interview for the job, I was asked to describe the last time I’d been wrong. My answer was that I’m wrong many times a day — and that’s why I talk with people to test my thinking and assumptions, and change them.)

What’s been great is how natural this culture of direct, honest feedback seems to be across Addaction. I have a personal horror of the ‘say something nice, then say something hard, and then say something nice afterwards so they feel better’ style of feedback. People can see that coming a mile off and it’s hardly surprising it’s got a sandwich-related nickname: it often comes across as forced and patronising. Much better to be direct, positive and natural — start from a place of wanting to improve our services and being open to suggestions and improvements. Use emotional intelligence and be kind. But don’t make a big deal of it.

I think this culture of constant and direct feedback is why the most common thing people have said to me about why they work at Addaction (after helping our service users!) is to do with their colleagues. There’s been no trace of internal politics or positioning in any conversation I’ve had.

I think it’s also why we’ve been able to move quickly to set up new services and make changes — a good example is starting to deliver primary care services in Liverpool. The team’s got stuck in and we’re now helping people in a new area of work, with an inventive and effective service model. We’re learning about what works and making changes every day. So it will keep getting better.

The bigger point here is that if you’ve got a culture of constant feedback and learning, you get rid of internal politics and you can deliver well and safely with a lot less red tape and bureaucracy.

Our culture is why lots of people have said how they’ve had opportunities to try different things, move between roles and generally get stuck in. They’ve felt trusted to experiment. The vast majority of people — including those who have TUPE’d in to our service recently — say their managers listen to what they suggest and take practical steps in response.

That’s the kind of organisation I want to work in too.