Getting R&D right and why charities should keep on taking risks

By John Copps 28 May 2010

A few weeks back I attended a conference which included a mixture of NHS managers and schools advisors. In a discussion about spending cuts and the need to achieve more for less, we got on to the topic of innovation and developing new models of delivering services. An interesting division emerged in the group.

The educationalists spoke about how they wanted to encourage teachers to take more risks, to try out new types of lessons and give pupils new experiences, even if sometimes things went wrong.

The health service managers took the completely opposite view. Taking risks was seen as bad news and they actively wanted to discourage it. One of the group talked about their nervousness about locum doctors and ‘have-a-go’ community nurses.

I would guess that there is a similar division in risk-taking amongst charities. A charity working with abused children is probably less willing to take risks than a charity working with unemployed adults. Charities are understandably more cautious when working with the most vulnerable people.

But this poses a problem. If you are limited in your ability to take risks, you are limited in your ability to try out new approaches and create new, innovative solutions. So what is the R&D model for these charities? How can they trial new ideas but balance this with their duty of care towards beneficiaries?

One answer to this is that innovation has to be incremental, with new services developing step-by-step rather than by revolution. This sort of pattern in innovation seems to be the norm across the social care industry, with improvement coming from small changes to existing services.

I’ve spoken to two social care charities about their approach to R&D. Both agreed that working with vulnerable people is not an excuse to avoid risk-taking. In fact, as one chief executive pointed out, not taking risks will mean that her charity would eventually get left behind – something even more damaging to beneficiaries than if the charity was very liberal in its attitude to risk.

Charities have a long and distinguished history of innovation. And thankfully, unlike that NHS manager, I think most understand that risk-taking is an integral part of this.