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Recently we have needed to access many different parts of the NHS and every member of staff we came across was so incredibly dedicated and helpful. To me they are actually an awe-inspiring example of the power of a purpose, but I feel the brand itself is let down by the lack of a vision and by a lack of joined-up service, testing the loyalty of staff and users alike. So what can the rest of us learn?

Purpose and attitude first: without fail the people we have met from cleaners and healthcare assistants, NHS optometrists to senior clinicians and nurse practitioners have all lived up to our local hospital’s mantra of ’safe, kind and excellent’ in terms of their manner, their clear dedication and their strong desire to solve the medical issue. A+E on a Friday night is a stressful environment – but we never once felt ignored, unwelcome or hurried along and of course, it’s one of the few health systems where you are served based on need, not cost or ability to pay.

So, a simple question: you may not save lives on a daily basis but your business does have a purpose: your service does address a problem, it does a needed job or helps people avoid some sort of pain (not NHS-style pain and probably financial more than physical). So, what is that purpose? Is everyone clear on it, and how does it flow through your daily work?

The full hospital strapline of the hospital I’m referring to is ‘Together – kind, caring and excellent’ and this is where some cracks start to show: the ‘urgent’ scan that can’t be booked, staff reluctant or unable to tell you to whom you’ve been referred, who’s leading your care, what hours they work or how to speak to them. All well-meaning staff who are keen to do the right thing, but this means patients having to learn how to navigate labyrinthine departments and phone systems to book their own scans, find the right person and be a squeaky wheel, squeaking louder than others so you’re not ignored.

Hospitals of course are busy and unpredictable places to run, full of reluctant ‘customers’ who are not in full health, and not a business environment. But to me, part of making ‘together’ work is a vision – and that applies here and anywhere. Not a cheesy, could-be-any-company phrase but something that is right, relevant and powerful for people in the organisation – their ‘why I get out of bed in the morning’. I’d guess your average NHS employee would say they get out of bed to save lives and make ill people better. This is honourable, true and a great start but it’s not a vision.

The NHS needs to move to a vision along the lines of ‘keeping us all well’ - measured not by A+E waiting times or cost savings, but by the percentage of us who rarely see a medic because we live long, healthy lives (I believe there is some early movement towards this at a corporate level). An NHS with this vision could potentially justify more preventive sessions about exercise and healthy eating to cut future incidence of costly Type II diabetes. It would spend a little on ‘pre-habilitation’ before an operation to help people go into it better prepared, mentally and physically, because trials show this cuts complications and shortens post-op stays – a win for patients and the accountants. We’d still need diabetes clinics and emergency departments but there would be fewer emergencies that were created or worsened by bad general health.

In the long term a vision of wellness, of treating the whole person and serving them quite seamlessly, could even inspire people to keep things joined up, to follow up on that voicemail, to persist, hand over fully to the next shift and call people back even as the unpredictable happens (perhaps not overpromising). Less focus on the crisis that just walked in and more on keeping people well, informed and treated quickly so they don’t become next week’s crisis. I’d hope most NHS staff (except perhaps A+E) would start to think something like ‘I go to work to treat illness – ideally before it starts’.

I regularly read news reports about NHS staff being short on resources. A great vision can help here: it doesn’t just drive day-to-day behaviour, it can be used very effectively at a strategic and Board level to set strategy and ask ‘does this deliver the vision?’ to push for more funding in some areas, and as a strategic reason to cut back on others.

IKEA’s vision of ‘a better everyday life for many people’ is motivating (and even defines pretty clearly who they serve and how: everyday articles for the mass market, done well). Harley Davidson ‘fulfill dreams through the experiences of motorcycling’ while Zappos shoe company focuses on ‘delivering happiness to customers, employees and vendors’. In the B2B space Intuit wants to ‘revolutionise the way people do financial work’, Charles Schwab wants to ‘help investors help themselves’ and Hubspot aim to ‘make the world Inbound. We want to transform how organisations attract, engage and delight their customers’.

These are all strong visions – not focused on company profit targets or other KPIs. Great visions have an emotional element, use ambitious words like ‘transform’ and are focused outwards, asking ‘how are we aspiring to change the world?’ Great visions don’t always mention the business the company’s in, but always focus on a purpose, on the high-level benefit they aspire to deliver: the top of what we call the ‘benefit ladder’.

Clearly this must follow through to a brand promise (Harley’s strapline is ‘Freedom for all, all for freedom’ and Zappos is ‘Powered by Service’) which has to be strong and simple for the staff, and needs to be felt by customers when they interact with the brand. The NHS doesn’t appear to define its brand and up close often struggles to deliver a good brand experience.

Talking about the NHS as a brand may seem odd, but given the nation’s huge affection for, and reliance on it, it certainly is one – and one that could be powered by a good vision and sense of purpose.

A strong vision can also benefit your contractors and agencies, making it more likely that you’ll see strong, on-target creative quickly. As a recent example I feel Audi follow through on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ (interestingly part of the decision to leave it in German may be because ‘vorsprung’ is a ‘leap forward’, stronger than the usual translation of ‘advancement through technology’) with a strapline: ‘It’s not a small car. It’s a small Audi’. This feels like a statement that differentiates a bit, calls on a strong heritage and can be delivered on when you drive the product. And Intuit manages to stay on-vision and do a creditable job of humanising small-business finance software with its ‘giant’ ads and longer story.

An authentic vision – done well and embedded – will also play well with your Board, is often linked to better business performance and employee retention, and ultimately underpins all of this work. Why don’t you give us a call if you’d like to talk more about really building that real sense of purpose.