The right tools for the job

Learning from using tools to support collaborative working in public services

Collaboration is challenging — but using tools can help. In this blog, Peter Thomas describes how different tools were used in the development of the Youth Mental Health Pathfinder Project in Ireland, a collaborative cross government approach to youth mental health.

Some of the toughest challenges facing governments seem intractable. They go beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and respond to; and, there is often disagreement about the causes of the problems and the best way to tackle them.

The obvious solution is greater collaboration between those with a material interest in the problem. This is so easy to say but really hard in practice.

The Irish Government created a pathfinder team to find new ways of working together to increase the impact of government efforts to improve the mental wellbeing of young people. The success of the pathfinder depended on the 10 problem solving tools and 8 collaboration tools it used. We have just published a toolkit to explain each tool. The tools helped our team in a number of ways.

1. Structured problem solving helps you focus on what matters most

Without an explicit and appropriate scope for the project, it is very hard to make progress: either because the scope is so wide you are only scratching the surface with generalities, or because it is so narrow that you run the risk of missing critical issues.

Helped by our ground clearing analysis, we made system and customer journey maps, and created issue trees to help us focus our efforts. We found some of these tools tricky initially — but some of the feedback reflected how helpful they had been:

“I hadn’t worked this way before — it forced us to focus on important things without long winding explanations — you can see the scope at a glance”
“The problem structure imposed a discipline and rigour on to our rationale for moving to areas for action… it helped us think through and spot logic difficulties and sharpened goals. Broke down problems into key components.”

2. You need careful planning and design to enable productive team working

Most of the team hadn’t worked together before. They came from very different places, and only had 15 days over 6 months to devote to the project.

We carefully designed whole group days and used proven collaboration tools including pinpoint, take a panel, rating, voting, temperature tests, tradeshows and templates. This ensured every individual made a significant contribution and had strong ownership of the recommendations. We achieved a huge amount in just 15 days of the team’s time. The team loved this novel way of working:

“The way of working, especially using collaboration tools ensured everyone in the room was involved, we had no drop outs, it kept us all interested.
“So much fun, so productive! Always looking forward to them. Hard work but useful…”

Right Toold For The Job

3. To come up with better solutions you need to look at the issue from different angles

We did this by mapping client/service user journeys, mapping the system — and listening carefully to people from different parts of the system. The 4 days of field work in the middle of the project was an energising and often inspiring experience, that changed our view of our world:

“[the fieldwork was] brilliant and scary — face to face works best… Informative, inspiring. Brought it to life…”
“[the] most enjoyable and informative aspect… Insightful and balanced perspectives… Impact of these perspectives very profound.

4. You need to work hard to really engage senior leaders and earn their commitment

We used visualisation, trade shows and structured story telling tools to get our findings across. We got senior leaders to stand up, split up and move around as they listened, discussed and rated our findings and recommendations. This felt risky to our team — but it made sure our sessions were two way conversations rather than the usual passive presentation or drab prose reports that dominate government business.

To download the toolkit, click here.

To read the story of the Youth Mental Health Pathfinder Project, click here.

Peter Thomas is an expert advisor to governments and public service organisations. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government. He is one of the authors of the ’15 Days’ practical guide to leading accelerated, high-impact collaboration in the Irish Civil Service, and the toolkit.