Leaving with pride - lessons learned at the Innovation Agency

Author Helen Mthiyane
Posted 2020.10.19

Liz Mear reflects on what she's learned as Chief Executive of the Innovation Agency (the AHSN for the North West Coast, and member of HSR UK), and the insights she'll take with her in her new role at Leeds Academic Health Partnership.

After seven and a half productive and happy years at the Innovation Agency (the AHSN for the North West Coast) I applied for and was recruited as the Managing Director of Leeds Academic Health Partnership, starting in my new role on 1 October 2020.

For over five years of my tenure at the Innovation Agency I sat on the Board of HSR UK and one of my first tasks at the LAHP was to sign us up to be members.  We now benefit from the great events, networking and practical insights of putting research and innovation into practice.

I have a passion for working in collaboration with partners to achieve better health and well-being for the people we serve.  We can do this by evaluating innovation and change proposals and products, ensuring that the evidence base for application is strong, and monitoring the outputs and outcomes, using reliable metrics that compare against a pre-established baseline.  I’ve always found that colleagues in the HSR UK ‘family’ are pragmatic and learn the lessons from the research and innovation deployments that have failed as well as those that have been successful in improving lives.

In this blog I’ll give some personal reflections and describe some of the lessons that I’ve learned during the past few years.  I can supplement this personal learning with the results of a ‘long read’ we commissioned from Ben Collins, a King’s Fund writer.  The final document is called A‘curious experiment’ – the birth and growth of the Innovation Agency.   Ben interviews stakeholders and staff and I think the results demonstrate how we’ve worked really well together, across the North West Coast, to develop and deploy innovation.

The summary of my approach at the Innovation Agency can be described by the famous quote:

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit” - Harry S Truman

This applies to how our staff work together as a true collaborative team and how we’ve generally worked with our partners. Staff at the Agency spend between 60 and 80 per cent of their time talking to and working with partners and using Innovation Agency resources to support partners’ agendas.  Requests for support are assessed so that we can prioritise the areas of greatest benefit to our partners and our residents – bearing in mind that ‘the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do’ (Michael E Porter).

Going back in time to the start of Academic Health Science Networks, eight of the fifteen AHSNs were very disappointed when initial funding allocations were cut by 70 per cent of what was initially promised.  This included the North West Coast but, after remonstrating loudly, we decided that we would approach this funding deficit as a challenge and, quoting Don Berwick, we realised that to make change we needed ‘will, idea and action’.  We had the will; we consulted with partners to pull their ideas into collaborative action; we seed-funded many programmes with the money we had, and matched Government money with funding from other sources. 

We’ve always strived to meet the needs of partners wherever they are in their development. During the last seven years the health and social care landscape has totally changed so this flexibility has been key to our success.  In the King’s Fund narrative, one of the comments from a partner, which greatly pleases me, is that the Agency ‘makes a useful contribution to joint work without seeking to take control, impose its own agenda or block partners from making progress’ (A curious experiment page 17). Being an honest broker in the system is how we operate – do read some of the highlights of the last year in our annual review.

We’ve successfully partnered with many organisations outside our region – the European Connected Healthcare Alliance, Well North, HealthWatches, our four regional Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Northern Health Science Alliance, many charities including the Stroke Association, Atrial Fibrillation Association, the Alzheimers Society, sports clubs with community interests – organisations like us who have the ambition to reduce health inequalities and improve the lives of the poorest, fastest.

We’ve developed a strong Public and Patient Involvement and Engagement Senate and use these fabulous individuals to systematically test innovations alongside a committed and energetic clinician panel.

I’m proud to be a former HR professional and NHS trust CEO and always try to build a culture where staff are able to do their best work. All staff members of the Innovation Agency have to be flexible as the decision making process on how we support partners is to ask the questions: ‘What are our partners struggling with?’ and ‘Do we have any particular skills or expertise that could help them?’  As with any newly established organisation we had to nurture this approach and attract staff who thrive with this way of working.

I’m also very proud that the Innovation Agency has developed an Improvement and Coaching Academy, using our learning to develop the capabilities of staff in health and care services to deliver innovation and improvement.  Interviewees for the King’s Fund report told us that our training programmes were life-changing.

This blog wouldn’t be complete without talking about COVID-19.  Part of my learning from the last few months has been that it’s all the more important to look after staff and be purposeful together about achieving results for our residents and stakeholders.  We increased the number of times we had contact with each other so that we could continue being successful and support colleagues’ needs.  As Maya Angelou said ‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them’

Together, the Innovation Agency staff pivoted the business by asking stakeholders what they needed from us. I led this from the front, contacting and writing to CEOs and leaders of our stakeholder organisations about what their organisations needed and then instigating structural changes, so we could act as an effective support service for those in the front line.  

Innovation Agency staff eagerly embraced and developed these changes and the results were outstanding.  We supported nearly as many health and care businesses in the first quarter of this year as we did in the year 2019/20.  We’ve supported those businesses to draw down £3.85 million to create jobs, deploy innovative products into the health and care sector and play our part in ensuring a buoyant health and life sciences sector across the North West Coast.

I moved on from the Innovation Agency and the North West Coast feeling proud of all we’ve accomplished together and how we’ve improved health in a number of areas including stroke prevention, chronic pain reduction, and reduction of children born with cerebral palsy.  In Leeds, we’re striving to improve the health of the poorest fastest and I take all my learning and insight gained from working with fantastic colleagues and partners in the North West Coast and HSR UK.


Dr Liz Mear is the new Managing Director of the Leeds Academic Health Partnership.  The partnership harnesses world class research and HealthTech solutions and drives adoption into practice to improve the health of residents and the economic growth of the region. 


This blog has been customised by the author from the original post on the Innovation Agency's website.