BLOG: Thinking out of the box

We recently had a fabulous conference for senior leaders in the largest charities. I came away feeling incredibly inspired yet somewhat annoyed with myself. Inspired because of the superb quality and thought provoking content and annoyed because only a limited few could share the learning.

I questioned whether we should have ensured that this content was available for the widest audience. So with that in mind I thought I would share some reflections on one of the speakers – Professor Martin Elliot.

This incredible and inspiring man shared generously the lessons he had learnt and applied to his work, as the professor of Paediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital, from a range of unlikely sources. If you have not heard of Professor Elliot I would strongly recommend you google his Gresham College Lectures!

Professor Elliot recognised something that many of us struggle to see; that we don’t possess all the answers within our own teams or experiences and we can learn so much if we just look outside the box. He shared with the audience how he had spent time with a Formula 1 team and transferred their learning and experience in the pit lane to significantly improve the outcomes for babies and children in the operating theatre.

He didn’t stop there. Could you imagine that a ballet dancer could teach a surgery team anything about flow, movement and body language in a hospital setting? Yet they did just that!

In his pursuit of continuous improvement what Professor Elliot has discovered (and it seems obvious when you see it) that if we’re open minded and look for examples of excellence, people operating at the top of their fields, we can transfer lessons to almost any setting. We need to make sure that we get the range of data and learning that we need, both from inside our sector and outside it.

He also spoke about how we hold ourselves back because even when we do benchmark ourselves, we tend to compare ourselves to the average performers (congratulating ourselves when we’re above them) when we should be measuring ourselves against class leaders. This ensures that we push ourselves to achieve our maximum potential, rather than being held back by slow movers or late adopters.

But Professor Elliot also demonstrated how the use of data was critical for improved performance. Rather than trying to hide our performance from others, we should be open to sharing, even if we don’t like the results! In the NHS, performance has been boosted through better data and identification of where gains can be made from changing practices. We need to learn from the public and private sectors so that we can deliver the best possible outcomes for our beneficiaries.

But I also think that CFG can do more to help. Not only have we got great networks that bring together charities, social enterprises and other voluntary organisations from across the sector, we also seek out case studies and peer to peer sharing which spreads best practice. Our own monthly magazine, Finance Focus, is one way that we try to keep members on top of the latest thinking.

In addition, we are also running our unique benchmarking tool – Finance Count – which enables charities to select a peer group (within or without their own types of organisation) to benchmark the performance of their finance function. It’s open to all (not just CFG members) and the more organisations that take part, the richer the data and the bigger the impact. We need to do more to develop and promote these kinds of products so that every organisation has the tools it needs to make the biggest possible impact.

So I encourage all readers to reflect on the issues that Professor Elliot raised. Are we being too insular? Are we getting the data that we need to take effective decisions? Are we really pushing ourselves to be the best that we can be? I will certainly be giving these questions some thought over the coming months.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive officer of the Charity Finance Group

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