Supporting health and care systems to become active adopters of innovation

The Adopting Innovation Programme

Uniquely, Innovation Unit helps places and partners solve today’s urgent problems and grow sustainable solutions for the future – building a safe and credible pathway between the two.

Download our bespoke adopting innovation wheel

A great example is how we helped five health and care systems to grow the conditions and capabilities needed to successfully adopt innovations.

“A valued thinking partner, the IU brings deep subject matter expertise, alongside impressive connectivity with renowned change practitioners and policy makers. The IU offers an unparalleled level of insight to help shape our vision for innovation and improvement, and highly skilled, easy to work with, practical facilitative capabilities.” Local Hub Sponsor

As the health and care system searches for radical solutions to the interconnected challenges of increasing demand, complexity, staff and public dissatisfaction, and health inequalities, the perennial question of how to accelerate the growth and spread of sustainable solutions becomes ever more important.

In 2021, the Health Foundation responded to this challenge by launching the Adopting Innovation programme. Its aim was to implement lessons from many years of research and funding innovation spread programmes (see The Spread Challenge and Against the Odds – which was written in partnership with Innovation Unit). They wanted to test if establishing ‘Hubs’ to coordinate leadership, support and expertise, would enable NHS providers and their local health and care partners to become better at adopting new innovations – including products, technologies, ways of working, pathways, and models of care.

The Health Foundation awarded funding to four places: 

  • Bradford District and Craven Partnership – who are building their capacity to adopt innovations as part of their commitment to ‘Improve as One’, focusing initially on improving primary care access
  • Dorset ICS who are taking a whole system approach to improving health and care through innovation adoption within and across all ICS and ICP partners 
  • Cambridge & Peterborough ICS – who are addressing health inequalities by adopting evidence-based innovations in key priority areas, such as heart disease and mental health
  • Manchester Foundation Trust – who are realising the benefits of their new electronic patient record by making it easier to adopt digital technologies. 

They also provided 1-year funding to Cornwall & Isle of Scilly, who used it to mobilise support to adopt the Community Health and Well-being Worker model. 

What we did


“The support we have received from the Innovation Unit has been excellent - one of the stand-out aspects of the Adopting Innovation Programme. The blend of skills and insights available through the IU has been unique and I would wholeheartedly recommend the Innovation Unit to other health and care systems.” Local Hub Sponsor

Over 2.5 years, our role was to help each Hub grow their adoptive capabilities, draw on and amplify existing assets, knowledge and skills (for example, with support of their regional Health Innovation Network) and to nurture cultures which normalise:

  • working in partnership with local people, staff and partners 
  • looking out for and adopting ideas and innovations that address strategic challenges and the priorities of people, patients and staff
  • experimentation and learning – from both successes and failures. 

This involved monthly individual, team and peer-to-peer coaching and capability building support, quarterly learning events, and delivery of a range of bespoke developmental support, activities, tools and materials. 

Our collective impact

Breaking down complexity and connecting priorities to current challenges and future visions

At the start of the programme, we undertook a diagnostic exercise to better understand the aims, cultures and capabilities of each of the sites and to help them understand where they were starting from and how we could support them.  

“The initial diagnostic work that the Innovation Unit did with the Adopting Innovation hubs and their localities has been important in helping those systems step back and reflect on where their strengths and areas to work on are, which has been helpful in turn for the hubs to think about where they could add value and get started in their systems” The Health Foundation

We also developed a framework to help Hubs make sense of the breadth of the ambitious task. This ‘adopting innovation wheel’ became a vital tool that Hubs revisited many times during the programme and used with their partners to reflect on progress, share learning and ideas, and re-vitalise plans and priorities.

“Of particular value has been the ability of the IU to take the learning from the experiences of all the Hubs (and from beyond this programme), synthesising it into high quality products that respond effectively to the needs and learning of the Hubs. E.g. ‘the wheel’ is a practical tool with wide application” Local Hub Sponsor

“The ongoing development of frameworks such as the wheel have been important in helping us to sense-make and visualise the potential activities and behaviours that need to be in local systems to enable the more effective adoption of innovation” The Health Foundation

Stretching ambitions and building confidence

Over many years, the NHS has invested in growing its national, regional and local innovation capabilities. Each of the Hubs had access to deep knowledge and skills, particularly within clinical domains and the technical aspects of innovation adoption, as well as essential, but often very separate, capabilities across improvement, engagement, procurement, IT, and other business services teams. Our aim was to encourage them to bring together existing assets and explore how diverse perspectives and types of innovation could support their strategic ambitions.  

“An important part of the IU’s support offering has been helping hub teams to better consider how they might access and leverage existing capacities within the system” RAND formative evaluation

Our work helped Hubs reframe their challenges, consider the strengths and needs of their communities and partners, and explore more systemic, preventative, and community centred approaches that may not otherwise have been considered. 

“[IU] also offer and act as an independent facilitator which offers credibility within an ecosystem with lots of innovation partners that may not be able to offer that objectivity” Local Hub Lead

With our support, Hubs reported feeling much more:

  • aware of the importance ofbuilding shared sense of purpose and capabilities before diving into project delivery’
  • clearer about the need tolook beyond the ‘usual suspects’
  • braver in interpreting the scope/ premise of the programme, to achieve a better fit with the ‘energy’ of our local system’ (local hub sponsor).

We also used our learning events and development support to share new ideas, explore collective challenges, and build confidence in a broad range of innovation capabilities, in particular co-production and participatory approaches, and nurturing enabling cultures. 

“They have provided an evidence base which has helped engage ICS stakeholders with the innovation journey and progress, making intangible impacts much easier to articulate.They have provided theories and how to utilise these in practice, which has been particularly helpful in thinking about Innovation at a system level” Local Hub Lead

Creating safe spaces for learning

Shifting cultures is hard and takes time, and the small number of people involved in setting up these local Hubs showed incredible creativity, commitment and resilience as they set about building new relationships, creating new structures and processes, initiating new projects, and catalysing many wider shifts across their systems.

“I have personally and professionally really appreciated the support offered by IU. They have offered a space where I can be vulnerable and open about challenges faced, a space that doesn’t exist elsewhere. They have coached me through some of those challenges and shared learning and insights from elsewhere” Local Hub Lead

“They [IU] make sure I am thinking holistically and encourage being resourceful. Their knowledge and approach both motivates me and really energises me after every call to take on the Innovation challenge with confidence. It is not an easy task, but they help break it down to become achievable and keep spirits high” Local Hub Lead

As the pressures on the health and care system continue to grow, building the conditions and capabilities that support innovation adoption becomes ever more important – but also more challenging. By taking such an intentional, structured and supported approach, each of the Hubs made considerable progress in building relationships and infrastructure, agreeing priorities, and providing a range of practical support to adopting teams across their systems – from helping to secure investment, providing training, toolkits and hand-on methodological and project management support, to helping embed evaluation and benefits realisation and producing case studies and other outputs to share impact and learning.

If you would like to learn more about how we can support you – or to talk to our partners about what working with us is really like – please get in touch with Christina Cornwell

We also invite you to use our bespoke adopting innovation wheel to reflect on the strengths and challenges of adopting innovation within your team or wider system.

Explore our impact