Rapid Insight: the missing piece in how we lead large-scale change 

Posted by: NHS Horizons - Posted on:

By Laura Yearsley, Associate Director of Insights at NHS Horizons and creator of Rapid Insight (CC)

Large scale change requires learning our way to a new future.1 In other words, change and learning are deeply connected, with successful change requiring continuous learning. Yet we don’t often think enough about the fundamental nature of learning within our change processes.  

All good learning has a social base.2 So how do we make sense of what we are learning within and between communities, so we can more effectively bridge to a new future – and do this in ways that are speedy, impactful, continuous, and scalable?  

Enter the important role of accelerated design3 4, and the power of integrating this with Rapid Insight5, and we have a new approach and supporting methodology, to supercharge how we approach change.  

A common scenario 

Imagine you’re leading a process of inquiry where there are no simple or known solutions. You need to create the space for people living with a problem, to come together to think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options that extend beyond popular thinking and search for higher changes.  When you bring people together, you are deluged by even more questions, ideas, reflections, thoughts on the problem we’re trying to solve, and what we should do next. In a bid to be inclusive, you risk death by report out – either during the workshop, or in a form of a giant summary report created some time afterwards. Now what?  

Next, imagine if we decided to scale up the group, and bring them together over time. To get to the learning, we need to take a much larger community through progressive cycles of action. In this scenario, we convene hundreds of people, and end up with even more data. We have so much in fact, that it’s beyond any one person to review and make sense of in a timely way. How do we move from disparate pieces of data to something that brings coherence, gets to the heart of what matters, and enables a community to make sense of the bigger picture they are moving towards? To put it another way, instead of the detailed data residing with a minority of individuals, how do we create the conditions for entire communities to learn their way to the future, in a way that links events over time?  

How we move from data to insights in ways that support us to learn and iterate at scale, is the challenge we have been seeking to address over the past three years. It’s also why we believe Rapid Insight is a game changer in how we lead large-scale change.  

Introducing Rapid Insight  

Rapid Insight turns different types of data into actionable intelligence, either in real time, or rapidly after an event. It’s helpful to think of it as both an approach, and a product. 

The product is often an input presented live on the day and an output following the event that represents what emerged from the community. Products can take different guises, ranging from thematic summaries, to key questions emerging, to identifying some clear calls to action.  

Whatever the product ends up being, it must be practical (it must be possible to do something with the insights) AND have been developed through a social process. The social learning aspect of our approach is important because intelligence is an active process, not just a mental capacity; it is interpersonal, generative, and it manifests when we think and act together. Collaborative intelligence therefore arises from thinking and working together6, which also makes it highly relational and influenced by different energies for change7. In a sense, we are all active contributors to the whole.  

Why is this so important?  

Rapid Insight helps us to learn our way to the future  

Systemic change needs more than data and information; it needs collaborative intelligence and insights that can be applied in practice.8 Insights need to be developed by people with direct experience, and ideally, some influence and decision-making powers if they are to survive contact with reality.  Change is about people, and so how we involve individuals in generating insight, is an integral part of the process.  

The process of generating insights is a shared endeavour and involves co-creation and co-design. Working alongside community to sense make with them, we work together to share what is emerging. When starting a workshop, we make it clear that thoughts and ideas will be captured by a Rapid Insight team, and that the insights themselves will be shared “live” for the benefit of the community. In our experience, this changes behaviour; people sit straighter, they pay attention, and they are more likely to make sure their thoughts and ideas are shared. Ultimately, we believe the presence of a Rapid Insight Team is an intervention by itself; it makes people more active contributors within their community. If a thought or idea is important, people will share it or write it down because they know something will be done with it.  

Sharing the insights as they emerge gives people a sense that they are seen and heard and increases the speed at which communities learn together. We have developed a Pop-Up Insight Model, which we will share in more detail in a later blog, that ensures involvement, inclusion and diversity in the process of generating insight. Very rarely does the data tell us what to do, so learning together is an important aspect of the sense making process. 

We have established that involvement is key to sense making, but how does this then lead to progress on large scale change?  

We believe there are at least five ways Rapid Insight can supercharge change.  

Rapid Insight can help us to: 

  1. Learn and act fast. Insight supports the framing and re-framing of issues, speeding up the process of knowledge, improving practice through rapid feedback loops.  
  1. Build collaborative intelligence. The process of insight generation moves us beyond the data, to explore the bigger picture. We consider the “so what, now what.” This in turn, ensures learning and action extends beyond the room, whilst building individual and collective energy for change.  
  1. Support systems leadership. Insight forms part of a cycle of continuous learning that helps communities to sense and probe their way towards an emergent future. Meaning making in this sense constitutes leadership.9 
  1. Attend to the presence of what is missing. Often the more interesting insights are not what is in the data, but what is not there. The approach ensures that as far as possible, we don’t leave things unsaid, uncontested or unexplored. Feelings and instinct are an important part of how we interpret what is emerging. Insight is always moving us forward, preventing us from repeating the same conversations. 
  1. Make new meaning and discover new possibilities. Insight helps to shine a light on what matters to people, as well as bring coherence to complex network interactions. The process of sense making using insight, encourages us to re-imagine, experiment and voice options for a better future.  

The journey doesn’t stop once we have the insights. How we use insights is arguably more important than the insights themselves.  

Insights are only impactful if they are timely, and we do something with them.  

If insights are to influence policy change, then they must be generated in time to meet the opening of a policy window. Too often, we underestimate the speed at which complex policy decisions are made, and the opportunity is lost. As Chris Whitty says: “An 80% right paper before a policy decision is made, is worth ten 95% right papers afterwards, provided the methodological limitations imposed by doing it fast, are made clear.”10 

Rapid insight provides a mechanism for bringing together what we are learning, to support iterative cycles of learning, development, testing and experimentation. We try something, and then get feedback into the system to help progress and develop ideas. Each time we generate insights, we layer our understanding, creating options that supporting movement towards a direction. Rapid insight is data for action; it is helping us to make sense of the world so we can act in it. 

The act of curating and sharing rapid insight is another way insights can have impact. We know from experience that rapid insight – both as an output, and an intervention – has the power to change the nature of the conversation and affect energy for change:  

“I attended an event where I observed the rapid insight team in action. They provided enormous value on the day, quickly generating feedback from over 200 people, playing this back into the room live. It changed the nature of the conversation and the speed at which the community was able to learn from what was emerging. Rapid insight is a game changer.”  

(Tracey Sherin, CEO, Saskatchewan Health Quality Council, Canada) 

“Seeing this is so reassuring as it shows my voice has been heard. Let’s all get on board and do this together as a team… I’m actually really happy because this represents what I have seen and heard. There are no excuses now in not moving forward to the next steps. There is tremendous power in sharing this.” 

(Darcy Carter, Senior Administrator, BQ Quality Team and member of BOB Pop Up insight team) 

Moving towards a new model for Rapid Insight 

What is powerful about the approach, is how it is used in combination with strategic facilitation and design, to support breakthrough thinking, to how it borrows from a diverse set of disciplines.  

What is exciting, is the way we make use of the tools of qualitative or mixed methods research, to support communities to quickly “see into” challenges, share learning, and in turn, move thinking forward leading to action. As well as a focus on the technical methods underpinning our approach, we also celebrate – and actively encourage – what each person brings to the process of insight generation.  

Our 5S Model for Rapid Insight is our first attempt at summarising what we think are the defining characteristics of our scalable and repeatable method:  

Rapid Insight as an essential element in how we lead large scale change

Put simply, we believe when combined with strategic facilitation and intelligent design, rapid insight is one of the most impactful tools at our disposal. If we have better insights, we have better decisions, and therefore better health.


  1. NHS England, Sustainable Improvement Team and the Horizons Team. Leading Large Scale Change: A Practical Guide. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/practical-guide-large-scale-change-april-2018-smll.pdf Accessed 7 July 2024. 
  1. The Center for Accelerated Learning. The Guiding Principles of Accelerated Learning. https://www.alcenter.com/guiding-principles/ Accessed 7 July 2024. 
  1. Hibble J. MG Taylor (as practiced by ANZ PAZ). Epiccollaboration.com. https://epiccollaboration.com/approaches/mg-taylor-practiced-anz-paz Accessed 7 July 2024. 
  1. NHS Horizons. Accelerated Design. Available at: https://horizonsnhs.com/programmes-of-work/accelerated-design-events/#:~:text=What%20is%20accelerated%20design%3F,between%20one%20and%20three%20days. Accessed 7 July 2024.  
  1. Karakusevic, S., Yearskey, L., and Maddocks-Brown, Liz. Networks, the clear blue water of change or the “wave tops” on the sea? Healthcare Management Forum. 2023: 1-4. 
  1. Mural. The principles of collaborative intelligence: reimagining how teams work together. Mural.co. Available at: https://engage.mural.co/rs/480-LFM-113/images/principles-of-collaborative-intelligence.pdf. Published January 2022. Accessed Sept 22, 2023. 
  1. NHS Horizons. Coaching NHS leaders to build energy for change. Available at: https://blog.horizonsnhs.com/post/102f6wr/coaching-nhs-leaders-to-build-energy-for-change Accessed 7 July 2024. 
  1. Senge, P., Hamilton, H., and Kania, J. The Dawn of Systems Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review 2015. Available at: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#  
  1. Drath WH, Pauls JP. Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning Making in a Community of Practice. Center for Creative Leadership; 1994. 
  1. Whitty, Chris. What makes an academic paper useful for health policy? BMC Medicine 2015: 13 (301). Available at: https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-015-0544-8  

The Horizons Insight and Impact team are curious and always learning; we enjoy experimenting and evolving our methods. We believe this is an essential element of how we continue to innovate our approach to Rapid Insight.  

This is one of our earliest pieces on Rapid Insight. What does this blog spark for you? What are we missing? How does this relate to your field of work? 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments, or write to us

We plan to share more about the approach – and the methods that sit behind Rapid Insight so that more people can practice the approach. If you are interested in learning more, please follow us on X (Twitter) and Linkedin 

Rapid Insight © 2024 by NHS Horizons is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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